Being a pastor, I am invited into the sadness of people’s lives, often. As a pastor, I working on developing both empathy and boundaries; empathy, so that I can come alongside them and let them know they are not alone, and boundaries, so that I am not rendered undone by all of it.
But still. Oh sometimes, I just want to stop everything, grab a box of Kleenex, get comfortable on the couch, and weep and weep and weep. A parent with young children losing a battle with cancer. A mother, on the verge of deportation, telling her children to be brave. Estrangement for no good reason. Violence for no good reason. Random accidents. Mistakes.
The easiest boundary to create is shutting down, turning off the feelings, setting the empathy aside. Depending on what’s going on, I might find busy work for myself, or clean a drawer in the kitchen, or listen to the zippiest, happiest, most innocuous musical I have on my playlist. But that only works for so long.
When melancholy made its arrival yesterday, I began to think hard (another boundary – thinking instead of feeling.) What dispels sadness, or at least alleviates it? For this past day I’ve been wondering about that.
I know that for some, prayer alleviates the sadness, that somehow sharing the burden with the God who loves them lessens it all a bit. I find prayer just makes me a little mad. Why isn’t God doing something about it? Why can I not see or believe that God is doing something about it, that I have no idea how much worse it would be if God weren’t doing something about it?
I know for some distraction works, whatever the distraction – work or play, food or booze, sleep or medications. They distract, but they don’t take away the sadness. When the work is done or the play is over, when you’re full or hungover, when you wake up or the meds wear off, the sadness is still there.
In the brilliant movie Inside Out, Joy learns that she cannot be without Sadness. The two need each other in order for their human to be whole.
I need sadness, then, I suppose. Sadness doesn’t hurt, but it aches. It’s like a constant sore muscle, or an inflamed gum, or arthritis. It’s not a sharp pain but an unyielding soreness that acts as an incessant reminder that all is not well, that someone is going through something horrific and I am powerless to stop it.
And then I think about beauty, beauty as a counter to sadness, not as an eraser of it. There is beauty all around, if only we have the eyes to see it. Sometimes when I am sad I do some coloring, because the intentionality of choosing which pen to use where, and seeing all the colors together, makes me happy and for a moment creates some order in the midst of chaos. Sometimes when I am sad I go back to a familiar book or poem. Often A Wrinkle in Time will get me right again. There is a beauty to the words that people put together in such a way that I am inspired and hopeful. Music is the strongest of the beauties for me. Barber’s Adagio for Strings feels like salt in the wound at first when I am sad, and then heals me in a way I cannot explain. Appalachian Spring will do that too. I love the beauty of a Chagall painting, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, and the shades of blue in my daughter’s eyes.
So I draw or read or listen and I am reminded that as thwarting as it is, sadness is not the strongest thing. Beauty wins over sadness. It does. There is joy in beauty, and sadness too, I think, and perhaps in that which we find beautiful, we understand at a level way beyond our rational thinking that joy and sadness really do need each other.