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Tuesday, September 4, 2007


What do you do when you feel sad? Who do you tell when you are too sad to cry? Too sad to think? Too sad to do anything except feel the enormous weight of the sad that has been inexplicably thrust upon you.

Nobody wants to hear that you are sad. After all to admit that would kill the mood. It would make people feel awkward. It might even tempt people to evaluated their own emotions and peel off their facades. Those who might listen would speak to you in well- intended yet meaningless platitudes. They would tell you “it’s going to be alright”, look on the bright side,” “things will get better”, and my favorite “just leave it in the Lords hands”. I’m certainly not implying that God is incapable of taking care of things. I wholeheartedly subscribe to that truth. Yet sometimes these words just aren’t enough to cut through all the sad. Inexorably, that may be all we have to offer at times.

What’s more our society is quick at assigning people a ready-made label. We like to use words like depression to describe a prolonged emotional state we believe is “unacceptable”. Someone who feels this way is told that she has a psychological disorder and that generous doses of mind-altering chemicals should be applied to relieve it. Every year doctors write more and more prescriptions only to write more the next year and more the next. However, the sad does not go away. It remains resilient even in the face of powerful medications.

The problem is a complicated one and can in no means be treated causally. There are many theories on depression that fall in the categories of nature or nurture or both or none. We debate its cause and its cure. Yet with the mountains of literature, and statically driven data, self-help books, and even spiritual and homeopathic remedies, sad manages to thrive. The miraculous panacea that we seek fails to be found. Perhaps, we argue, because such a cure is too complex, but what if it were so simple that we have overlooked it and thus have done a tremendous and irreparable wrong to those who are sad?

At the risk of sounding simplistic what would happen if we were allowed to be sad? All human beings have the capacity for sadness. Early on we are taught that some emotions are good and some are bad. We assign value labels to everything; even our feelings. We are taught that if an emotion feels bad it must be bad. But just because a feeling is “bad” does not mean that we shouldn’t experience it. As morbid and counterintuitive as it sounds perhaps many people commit suicide because they aren’t allowed to feel sad. However, what if people were allowed to feel sad—unapologetically. Our forefathers wrote that we have the right to pursue happiness, yet we are ironically not permitted to be sad.

What do I mean by that? Our relationships are superficial. You see groups of friends with pasted smiles on their faces. We greet each other with fake smiles and engage in meaningless “small” talk. We say we agree even we don’t. We go along with the group. Few people want others to know that they are sad. So we lie. And these outward lies that we use to mask our feelings force us to stuff what we really feel inside. We weren’t made for that and the result is that more and more of the sad is pushed deeper and deeper inward until it is trapped inside of us. To be sad is to be somehow be irrevocably tainted. Subconsciously, we recognize this quite early in life and so we contain and compartmentalize the sad until it consumes us.

Even as I consider my own relationships this truth remains. I go out with people I hardly know. We call ourselves friends because we have fun together and have been in each other’s company for so long, yet we know nothing about each other. We ask casually “how are you doing” without any real interest in the answer to a question that could be life changing. We respond equally superficially with the word “fine” ad naseum. We share meals, jokes, interests, and ideas, but we don’t share sad.

At the risk of sounding cynical life is sad at times. Bad things happen to us and to those we claim to love and sometime these things happen suddenly and seemingly without reason. Our world has become increasing on edge as we are beset with wars, political upsets, mounting social atrocities, economic disparities, and the ubiquitous day to day hassles. To pretend these things don’t exist is not only profoundly ignorant, but a profound disservice to ourselves. We don’t need to descend into a pool of self-loathing in order to acknowledge that we feel dismay at the senseless things that happen in our world—our personal world and the world at large. Arguably we need to feel sad, often for more than just a few minutes or a few days. We need to allow those we love to feel sad without trivializing their emotions. We need to establish real relationships with people instead of the shallow ones that are dominating our society.

This essay doesn’t pretend to have all of the solutions and probably poses more questions than it answer, yet our denying and even medicating our emotions only leads to negative outcomes. Our reactions to those who are sad, as well as our increasingly superficial relationships with one another other only helps to exacerbate the very state we long to alleviate: sad.

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