On Sadness

I recently broke off a close friendship. It was amenable enough, both parties knowing the score and willing to let it go on the condition that each was allowed to believe their side of the story.

Why are healthy things so hard to do?

Regardless of exact conditions, I found myself in an all too familiar place. A hard choice had been considered, weighed, and made. What was left was to live with it.

The thing about sadness is it’s nocturnal. When the sun is up, we fill our time with daily trivialities. This transmutation of pain into productivity lends a kind of short term relief. Our friends are there too, should we be lucky enough to have them, to provide words of encouragement, and remind us that we are not in fact, insane beyond measure.

Nevertheless, we all know what awaits us in the night. When the sun sets and we’re left alone in our halogenated pools of light, we recall with primal clarity those icy tendrils that grip us as we feign sleep. Supine, pure sine waves of existential pain sloshing about in our brain coconuts, it feels worse than death. Dying, we imagine, happens once. This is a kind of pain that will set you free in other ways, but not before it’s done with you.

It occurs to me that somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that happy people aren’t sad. A preposterous notion, but one that brackets our deepest desires. The next-door neighbor with a perfect family, the high-achieving acquaintance with unearned success, the beautiful friend whom we carnally desire, we know these characters not by who they are, but by what they mean to us. They are embodiments of our deepest longings, and we hold them to impossibly high standards. They could be tarnished by something so mundane as grief.

It a delusion so overbearing that we have begun to see sadness as unnatural. It is a sign that the gears in our brain aren’t meshing quite right, and that something needs to be fixed to get us back to wherever we were before. As it happens, vernaculars like “get through” or “get over” or the more despondent “cope with” are no accidents.

Here’s how a lot of us handle sadness.

The first stage is avoidance. There’s that coffee shop where you met X, that show that you used to watch with Y, that dish you used to go over and cook together. We all have these places and practices we refer to in this whistful past-tense. It is a practice so common that one can achieve complete empathic unity with strangers just by their mention.

Next is denial. If we are forced to face ourselves, we hide behind a veneer of rationality. We tell ourselves things like, “the past is the past” and “c’est la vie”. We build elaborate logical castles, unquestionable in their validity, but far from sound. Most of these can be reduced to some form, “If I had really wanted X, Y wouldn’t have happened, so I didn’t really want X”. We convince ourselves there’s no reason to be sad.

When all else fails, the final trump is disassociation. We convince ourselves that all those terrible things really happened to somebody else. That the traumatic experience was so painful it triggered some kind of epiphanic realization and corresponding rebirth of self. The so-called “new me” has traveled to a more enlightened plane, and literally can’t be associated with past mistakes. Devotees of this stage become obsessed with permutations of the phrase “that was the old me”— a statement they almost believe.

It turns out that this kind of “ignore it while you can confront it only if you have to” attitude is really the worst way of handling things. It’s based on bad science. If we stop to think about the aforementioned embodiments of our desires qua genuine human beings, we realize there’s no way they aren’t just as broken and messed up as we are. That family has whole days where they’re so filled with petty anger they can’t even look at each other, that acquaintance has really just picked up an early ticket to see the emptiness of unearned success, that friend is just as lost as we feel.

Dealing with grief in our usual way amplifies it. We’re so busy running that we never stop to think about where it comes from. Since we don’t understand it, we can’t see how it would ever go away. It becomes a kind of constant enigma. An incomprehensible being that sits on our shoulder and whispers dark thoughts. It makes us believe we’ve lost something infinite.

The secret to handling this kind of pain lies in the very examination we shy away from. When we look deep into that twisting enigma, we find that it is made of love. Sadness turns out to be nothing more than the guardrail on the road to happiness. It is there to tell us when we stray and bounce us back with the same ferocity we hit it with. Family, success, companionship, these are the temples to which we devote ourselves, and the streets we walk towards fulfillment. To live without them, denying the road as well as the rail, is to live for nothing. When we turn towards grief, we realize its inherent beauty. We understand what it’s trying to tell us, and that it means no harm.

This turns out to be astonishingly difficult because it involves trust. We can endure a lot of pain, but not when it’s self-inflicted. When we find this trust, it lends us a kind of freedom. We have faith that the feeling will go away. That right now doesn’t mean forever. That the future will be better because of it.

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