Happy About Sadness
This is a happy read. And yet, how can an article about sadness be happy?
It’s the dichotomy of the thing. We’re all happy and we’re all sad. We’re overwhelmed with too much and simultaneously saddled with a sense that we don’t have enough. We’re ready to tackle the day ahead and ready to take a nap. We’re very much alive and yet slowly dying each day.
Life is a paradox. And since sadness is very much a part of life, it too is paradoxical. It’s complex. There’s good sad. There’s bad sad. There’s debilitating sadness. There’s seasonal sadness. There’s triggered sadness. There’s sadness for no reason.
I’m no clinical expert in sadness, but I would say we’ve become good friends. Sadness, in some form, has sat in the general backdrop of my life since I can remember. It’s like one of those painted scenes Hollywood creates for the background of what is meant to be an epic and breathtaking location, but didn’t quite have the budget to actually go there. It blends in with the rest of the locale, props, and characters, but you’ve always got this sense that you’ve had to settle for something less than the real thing.
I think at its best, sadness tells me that I’m settling for something less than the real thing. Sometimes I’ve been forced to settle. Circumstances beyond my control. Other times, it has been a series of choices I’ve made that have resulted in me settling for less. Nonetheless, I have grown comfortable with the Hollywood backdrop providing the landscape.
Sadness, like I said, has become a friend.
What sadness has taught me over the years is that it can do one of two things. It can either consume me or point me.
Let me explain. In the film The Wizard of Oz, there are some painfully obvious backdrops. The coming storm near Dorothy’s farm in Kansas. The woods that provide the setting for the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Dorothy to exclaim “Lions, tigers, and bears! Oh my!” And even the famous yellow brick road that trails off toward Oz itself. All obvious, if not beautiful, artistic concoctions.
Fun fact: not one scene in The Wizard of Oz was filmed ‘on location.’ Rather, every scene of that fantastical and beloved movie was shot on the sound stages of what was then MGM’s Culver City Studios, now Sony Pictures Studios, in Culver City, CA. These obvious, but beautiful, artistic concoctions did their job.
So now, even watching the film, I’ve got two options. I can allow those backdrops to consume my attention, focusing on how clear it is we’re not actually in Kansas — or Oz for that matter — anymore. Or I can allow those backdrops to do what I believe they were intended to do: point me to a real, fantastical, other-worldly place.
I am, after all, typically watching The Wizard of Oz or any other movie from either a theater or my living room TV. I am not actually in Oz — or the Wild West — or a galaxy far, far away.
I’m on my couch.
For that matter, we all might be on the couch preferring to be in Oz. What I’m saying is, let’s not let the backdrops ruin the fantasy of where we could be.
Sadness, left unchecked, can ruin where we could be. It can be an all-consuming backdrop.
Or it can point us to somewhere else.
Sadness The Pixar Way
My soul almost leapt out of my chest when I saw Disney-Pixar’s movie, Inside Out, in theaters several years ago. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading for a couple hours and go watch it. Or excuse the spoiler alert: it is a movie about the important place sadness plays in our lives.
A young girl, Riley, is forced to move from the Midwest to San Francisco when her dad has a job change. Cut to the control room of her intellectual-emotional center and you find the characters of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness helping Riley cope with all the transition. As you’d expect, Joy has a prominent place of leadership in Riley’s psyche. Anger, Fear, and Disgust all provide proper protections of the dangers of a new school and a new town — as well as comic relief.
Sadness, however, is relegated to the background. No one wants Sadness tampering with day-to-day operations or affecting core memories for Riley, especially Joy. In fact, in one scene early in the movie, Joy draws a circle around Sadness and tells her that her only job is to stay put.
As I watched that scene, I remember thinking, “That’d be nice if Sadness would stay put like that.” I also remembered several times where I had made conscious decisions of my own will to keep Sadness caged up. Yeah, it was inside there somewhere. I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could (so I thought) purpose somehow to make it stay put so as not to affect my day to day.
I think this is a common tactic for most of us facing sadness. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact we can’t rid ourselves of it, but we think maybe we can keep the virus tightly contained. And so, most of us draw a mental circle around it. We build a fake fence around it so no one can see it and it can’t escape.
Fundamentally, this is one of several key mistakes in our relationship with sadness. Most of us, even subconsciously, never deal with our sadness. We don’t understand its roots. We don’t put it in context. We don’t learn the pressure-release valve of expressing it healthfully. Instead, I think most of us default to two things: we draw a circle around sadness and then we try to heap a whole bunch of happy things on top it.
In the Pixar movie, Joy keeps giving Sadness these pep talks. “It’ll be great! Don’t be sad about it!” “It’s all going to work out! Chin up!” “Don’t be sad! Just be happy!”
I know I’ve had those pep talks with myself. “Just get over it and focus on the good stuff, Ronnie!” There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thinking. It is healthy to focus on the good stuff. It’s downright biblical. It’s even tied into the American Way.
Our country, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, was built on the principle that human beings are endowed with certain unalienable rights including Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Happiness is seen as our due. It is something, according to the Declaration, that is as important as freedom and life itself. Makes sense on many levels.
What is life if it is not free or happy?
The American Way probably paints a better picture of what human beings will experience in Heaven someday than what the United States actually has to offer. Or any other country for that matter. But it does speak philosophically to something we all desire. We all desire to pursue — and even better, discover — happiness.
Think about all the things our culture offers to bring happiness. New cars. New homes. New relationships. New clothes. Anything “new” in general. And if not “new” then how about “improved”?
A better car or a better home or a better boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse. Certainly happiness will come with those. A lower interest rate. A dream vacation. A winning team. A job promotion. A little more fame. A lot more fame. A little money. Okay, maybe a lot of money.
And if we can’t have that stuff or those experiences to bring happiness, we can always settle. A bunch of little, cheap junk if we can’t swing the expensive stuff might be as good, right? Have you ever gone to Chuck E. Cheese’s or Peter Piper Pizza? Have you spent $50 on tokens for games that yield your kid about $1.50 worth of plastic prizes?!
We’re usually fine settling for the quick, easy fix if we can’t get the long-term, more costly fix. Run up the credit cards for the buzz. Max out on a bunch of party relationships. Numb out on some binge-worthy streaming series, too much work, or too many drinks.
Heck, even lesser happiness is better than dealing with our sadness.
Happiness. It has become our remedy for sadness. It has become the dirt we use to bury anything sad or painful. That’s why we’ve all heaped shovels-full of happy things into our lives immediately following some of our saddest moments.
In Inside Out, think about all the challenges triggered by Riley’s move to a new city. She had to:
- Navigate leaving her best friends and childhood home.
- Process a new routine with her dad’s work schedule.
- Learn the cultural dynamics of her new hometown.
- Make new friends.
- Maintain some sense of her assumed family role as the easy-going, happy daughter all despite these challenges.
It’s no wonder that Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness were grabbing for the mic of her life. The deal with emotions like anger, disgust, and fear is that they’ve got strong, pointy elbows. They, almost subconsciously, shove their way to the forefront with a quick jab to the ribs of the emotions next to them. And because sadness tends to be the most acquiescent of the emotions, to the backdrop it goes.
So is the case for Riley. Her Sadness keeps trying to speak up, expressing something important and real, only to be dismissed. Thankfully, over the course of the movie, Sadness is able to convey something that Joy, Anger, Disgust, and Fear did not. All of her emotions had the ability to express something wasn’t right on the inside or the outside — or both. However, it was only Sadness who expressed all that in a manner that was gentle, empathetic, and pulled others in close.
After Riley flirts with running away from home, it’s Sadness that finds a healthy voice inside her. That voice calls her back to her parents. She comes in the door to find her panicked mom and dad. They rush over to embrace Riley and she begins to cry.
“You need me to be happy, but…” Riley says quietly and then starts to recount all the things she misses from their hometown. Her old friends, her hockey team. And then, “Please, don’t be mad.”
“You need me to be happy, but…”
How many times have you thought that or felt that? There’s a lot of pressure for us to be happy.
But. Sometimes. We’re. Just. Not.
We sense that our sadness will often make others uncomfortable. Most people don’t know how to deal with their own sadness let alone someone else’s.
- “You need me to be happy, but I just got divorced.”
- “You need me to be happy, but I just lost a loved one.”
- “You need me to be happy, but I’m constantly bullied at school.”
- “You need me to be happy, but I’ve never felt handsome a day in my life.”
- “You need me to be happy, but my parents were never a safe place for me.”
- “You need me to be happy, but I’m not sure how I’ll pay for our next meal.”
- “You need me to be happy, but communities I care about are oppressed and dying.”
When it comes to giving some of our sadness a voice, I like the acknowledgment of saying, “You need me to be happy, but…”
A statement like that immediately sets the record straight by saying I’m not just going to ‘fake it until I make it.’ It says the people around you may want or expect something else of you, but that you are unable to feel, at this time, how they expect you to feel. It also says that you are conscious that their emotional needs are valid and yet different than yours right now.
Sadness won’t always scream. When it does, it’s probably clinical depression starting to form and we’ll talk about that later. For now, like Riley, we’ll spend some time giving more of a voice to our sadness because it’s definitely worth acknowledging you and I have plenty to be sad about.
And then I hope and pray that, like Riley, you and I are received like she was: with empathy, love, and comfort. Then, and maybe then, sadness will find some proper context and fulfill its proper purpose.
Grieving As God Wills Us To Grieve
I take great comfort in the Scriptures that give us permission to lament, grieve, be sad, and express our hearts to God in complete transparency. I believe that to be the great starting place in where the Spirit of God is invited INTO our sadness: an honest-to-God pouring out of our circumstances, our feelings, and our outlook to the One who already knows and already cares.
And so I leave you with Psalm 13. A very honest psalm of David. Notice his unfiltered transparency before God. Notice his important turn from lamentation to acknowledgment of truth in verse 5.
Take note of whether you’ve ever felt this way before. Take note of whether you’ve yet felt the permission to express this level of sadness to your Heavenly Father who cares deeply for you.
Might you make this your model prayer in seasons of sadness? Brutally honest, while simultaneously bringing the comforting Spirit of Truth to bear on your heart.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.Psalm 13
Until next time… you are loved.