In Defense of Sadness
A few weeks ago, I posted a YouTube video about why we’d left the United States and moved to Mexico. (I’ll link it here in case you’d like to watch.) The comment section of anything online can get weird fast, and I try to stay on top of the comments on my channel, booting off the creeps and weirdos and aggressive “I’m trying to get a reaction out of you” commenters (you know, the “I hope you throw yourself off a bridge, this video was that bad” variety).
But the comments that surprised me the most on this video were the ones that seemed quite distressed that I expressed I had been sad. I’d mentioned how unhappy we’d been the last couple of years in the United States. I’d talked about how out of place I’d felt in Wilmington.
I lost count of how many people told me I needed to find Jesus. (Is he lost? I didn’t let myself comment back. Of course, partly because I know the evangelical answer would be, No, girlfriend, you are.) (Really, though it was all worth it for one comment, that said, “Sounds like you need Jesus! And I mean Jesús, the taco stand guy” to which I literally laughed out loud.) People urged me to stop looking “out there” for happiness, to look inside myself. To learn contentment, regardless of circumstances. They said I must be a depressed person. (Ha! Actually, you pegged me there. But don’t worry, I’m medicated.)
I’ve been thinking about sadness a lot lately. Not just since the video posted and the comments came in. Since before the move, since before we left. Since Harper was born. Since she would howl and howl and I would rock her and kiss her head and cry with her. And now that she’s three—all those big emotions, the rollercoaster of having a young child in the house, someone who is so raw and so open and so intense. And I have been wondering, when was it exactly that I learned to hide that part of myself? When did I start to hide the girl in me who, when sad, wants to throw herself on the ground and howl?
Because we don’t allow that. We don’t allow that in children, not in our culture at least. A crying child is a problem—something to fix with bribes or distraction. Don’t cry. It’s fine, you’re fine. Don’t cry. The script is so familiar.
This morning Harper was desperately sad about something. I forget what it was. A toy? Not being given cookies for breakfast? It doesn’t matter. I felt annoyed at her theatrics. I wanted her to stop. Why does everything have to be at full tilt? Whatever she was upset about was meaningless to me. But I caught myself in those feelings, and I thought—Oh, right. This is how you teach her to hide herself. This is how you teach her that sadness is not okay.
So I left the dishes in the sink and went out to the stairs. I sat with her, rubbing her back. We talked about how sad she was, and I didn’t minimize it. I didn’t tell her it was okay. I didn’t tell her not to cry.
(Yeah okay, look, I’m not trying to be all high and mighty—I don’t do this all the time, and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve sighed and rolled my eyes, Jesse could probably quit his job by now. I’m no saint here.)
The more I learn to do this with her, the more I’m learning to do this with myself. The other night, I was anxious and upset and overwhelmed. I felt the familiar urge to flee, to distract myself, to convince myself everything was fine (does that ever work? Why on earth do we do this to ourselves, or to other people?). Instead, for once, I just sat with myself and my feelings. I told myself it was okay to be overwhelmed and anxious. I told myself my feelings were okay, they were normal. I sat there and felt my feelings. I let myself be anxious and overwhelmed and sad and confused. I let myself feel it.
And then I fell asleep.
(Funny how that happens. Also, this morning after Harper got the tears out of her system, she moved on to putting clothespins on the tails of her dinosaur toys and then taking them to the dinosaur hospital for immediate medical care.)
I know why people left those comments. They’re just doing what we always do when we see someone who is sad. We want them to not be sad and we try to fix it. Because we really cannot handle it when someone is sad and says so. It’s okay to be sad, as long as you take it elsewhere. That’s why we send kids to their rooms to calm down by themselves. Talk to me when you’re calm. It’s a giant cultural message of it’s not okay to be anything other than happy, but if you must be sad, please do it when you’re alone.
But, f@$k that. Sadness is part of being human. And, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t feel things halfway. Harper and I are cut from the same cloth—our feelings aren’t subtle about it. When we’re happy, we’re ecstatic. When we’re sad, we’re on the floor.
And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Why else do I have the sighing-eye-rolling-please-stop-crying responses to Harper’s pain? Because it brings up my own, and I can’t deal with that. Because I’ve spent my life believing that pain is bad, that sadness is a problem to be solved.
(Also because it’s noisy. I mean, let’s be honest.)
Our last few years at Port City were so hard, not just because we were so sad—with Tom’s illness and death, with more huge life changes, of graduating and getting jobs and losing jobs and interviewing for jobs that went to someone else, of late nights and of screaming fights. The years were not hard just because they were hard, but also because the message seemed to be, God makes all of this better. And the subtext of that, the message I don’t know if anyone understands they’re sending is, If it hurts, if it hurts so bad you feel cut in half, there’s probably something wrong with you. I watched a man who had just lost his father stand in front of a crowd and talk about the pain, and then say “But—” and turn it to talking about the hope he had in Christ, and what does that even mean? No, don’t tell me, because I know the answer, the canned answer, the hope of resurrection, of seeing your loved one again, all that, and I get it, I do, I get it.
I don’t want you to tell me that God will make the pain better. I want you to get on the floor with me and say, Jesus, this hurts.
There were friends who did that for us after Tom died, and I don’t know if they’ll ever know how much that saved us. I remember weeping on the phone with Simona, and she wept too, and we wailed together and screamed how unfair it was. And how many nights did Warren and Sharon sit with us and never once did they try to fix it, because they knew. They knew some pain can’t be fixed.
My favorite Bible verse is, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept. I repeat it to myself, I say it again and again, and it started in those years that were so hard, I would hold on to this. When his friend Lazarus died and his friends Mary and Martha were wrecked with grief, he wept. Lazarus was coming back. He was raised from the dead like freaking five minutes after this happened. And still Jesus wept. He had hope of resurrection, or whatever you want to call it. He knew everything was going to turn out okay. And he wept anyway. Because sadness and hope can coexist and they don’t cancel one another out. There is no “but—” there is only both, the weeping and the hope, and they cycle back over and over.
The man of sorrows.
So I sit with myself and I tell myself that life is not supposed to be easy, and the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time is a lie, it’s an American lie, and it’s one we learn so early on. It’s okay, I tell myself, and my daughter, it’s okay to be sad. You’re allowed to be sad all you want. Cry all the tears you have.
I don’t want to be around people who are happy all the time. I want to be around people who know what pain is. I want to be with the broken people. Because it’s around those people that I can be myself, my messy self, the girl who loves sad music, who loves to read a sad book and cry and cry, the person whose feelings run deep, both the sadness and the joy.