There’s no getting away from it. I’m a volatile persona. Well I am a ENTP for those of you of the personality test minded. It isn’t easy for loved ones around me as I can be quite visceral in my emotions. Although I suspect I need to be more controlled, I don’t entirely consider moodiness an unhelpful state of mind.
I have written about happiness and delight. The problem is, it feels almost hum drum to advocate searching for the joyous path in life. I mean who doesn’t try to be happy? Regardless, I’m not convinced a life of happy even if it were truly possible, allows us to live a 3D existence. We need a sprinkle of sadness intertwined through the chapters of our life; we need space to set this emotion free. I’m not advocating for despair or plumbing the depth of poor mental health through depression and trauma. I’m suggesting we shouldn’t dismiss without consideration the tame cousin which intrudes our existence. Why? Because ironically, sadness or suffering can be a force for good.
Sadness exists in and around us for many reasons. Via the lens of the anthropological and psychological, it suffuses to keep us safe, often as an alert response to our environment. Following the initial high drama, sadness suggests us to be wary and vigilant but also encourages pondering of our position, the situation, or others from oblique angles.
Katherine May writes about sadness as ‘wintering’ in her book of that name in which she describes it as a fallow period in life when you are ‘cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider’. She suggests we need to tune into its cyclicality to emerge stronger. ‘There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them to somewhere else. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how’.
This reminded me of a discussion with a friend many years ago when I blurted out how I avoided sad or difficult situations even with those I cared about. I didn’t even like seeing emotionally charged movies. He countered — what type of perspective was I building, how could I appreciate happiness if I didn’t every now and then deliberately immerse myself in other emotions? I was stumped for an answer.
I suspect Katherine May is implying being emotionally challenged can build resilience or support us to be more effective at the task in hand when it drives us to improve our situation and escape or overcome obstacles. According to Professor Forgas (a Psychologist), angst and sadness promote ‘information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations’. When I consider my life, I can feel echoes of my past sadness bleeding their way into how I live today and decisions I make; and that’s ok, it feels healthy and adds weight to my behaviour.
It is this attention to detail imbued with greater depth and meaning which links sadness to creativity. Aristotle was the first to suggest it in the 4th century BC and Keats wrote ‘Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?’ Many is the dazzling artist, writer, poet who has created masterpieces through melancholy. On a bigger scale, Joseph Schumpeter (The Austrian Economist) believed innovation — good and bad is mostly borne and cradled in a crisis. From The Atlantic : ‘Innovations developed during crises generate the gales of creative destruction that launch new technologies, remake existing industries, and give birth to entirely new ones — setting in motion new rounds of economic growth’. The article sites how during depressions, innovation flourishes to be commercialised as growth returns. Famous examples of crisis inventions include the light bulb, printing press and various vaccines.
Religion obviously has a lot to say about sadness (suffering) and how we navigate. In a ridiculously summarised version of a few : Hindus regard suffering as punishment for deeds carried out in previous lives; accumulated Karma. Bliss and suffering are two sides of the same coin. Buddhists believe we suffer because we are too attached to worldly goods and relationships; letting these go is the path to happiness. Islam teaches that sadness leads to repentance which leads to good deeds, rewarded by God in paradise. Sikhism suggests suffering arises due to self-centredness. Christianity broadly accepts we are expected to live through all of life’s challenges and help to alleviate the troubles of others by looking to God to improve our souls. Judaism suggests evil and suffering give people a chance to become better and be rewarded in heaven. I’m not sure if I’ve correctly surmised but the common thread seems to be we require sadness to be a better person and we need to be tested by our suffering for our afterlife.
I learnt about Mary Ruefle through the wonderful Marginalian website. She wrote a collection of prose called ‘My Private Property’ in which she describes different types of sadness by colour. I particularly love these descriptions….
‘Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe. It is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly, as slowly as it takes to dig a pit to hold a sleeping giant. Purple sadness is pervasive, and goes deeper into the interior than the world’s greatest nickel deposits, or any other sadness on earth. It is the sadness of depositories, and heels echoing down a long corridor, it is the sound of your mother closing the door at night, leaving you alone’.
‘Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm’.
But then she offers…
‘In each of the colour pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes’….
Here is a link to the article and the sadness colour descriptions.
Much of life, our interactions, the government, social and medical nets which support us look to minimise our sadness. We can’t expect anything less as we each have varying tolerance; physically and mentally. What we respectively choose to believe about the existence of this highly charged emotion is personal. The anthropological, the psychological, the religious, all have suggestions as to why we are tuned into sadness. There is no singular answer. But where we can cope, I don’t think we should shy away or decry uncomfortable emotions. If sadness suddenly appears, when you are ready internalise and embrace it, mould it to your advantage to move forward. Without its experience you don’t live a technicolour life. Without it there is no delight. And what’s the point of that?