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In Praise of Sadness

A Personal Perspective: The power of melancholy.

Key points

  • Sadness does not have to be an enemy.
  • Melancholy can connect us to the bittersweet reality of life.
  • Anger is protective armor against sadness.

If you ask people what the opposite of “happy” is, I think most will say “sad.” I would have said “sad” as well until I started thinking about how maybe…sad is not so bad.

I am driving on the 101 freeway toward the San Fernando Valley, cars whizzing by and around me because, apparently, I am the slowest driver in Los Angeles. I am listening to the radio and missing my hometown friend from high school, Lucy. For years and years, Lucy and I “talked back” to songs that we felt were offensive in some way, as if the lyrics were one half of a conversation and we were supplying the other.

My favorite song to talk back to was Cat Stevens’s “Wild World”:

  • Cat: Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world. It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.
  • Me: Uh, yeah, well, I’ve got a little more going on than a smile, dude. But thanks for the advice.
  • Cat: Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world, I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.
  • Me: Well, that’s f*cked up. I wasn’t a child then and I’m not a child now—
  • Cat: Oh baby, baby—
  • Me: Don’t call me baby—
  • Cat: it’s a—
  • Me: I KNOW! It’s a wild world—
  • Cat: —a wild world.
  • Me: Got it. How 'bout we not stay in touch?

Lucy’s favorite was The Police, with Sting singing “Every Breath You Take”:

  • Sting: Every move you make. Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.
  • Lucy: What? Dude, we broke up.
  • Sting: Can’t you see that you belong to me?
  • Lucy: Uh, no, I don’t see that. I don’t see that to be the case at—
  • Sting: Every bond you take, every move you make—
  • Lucy: F*cking stalker!!

I am thinking about Lucy and our habit of talking back to songs because a song just came on called “Drive By” by the artist Train with the lyric, “Just a shy guy, looking for a two-ply Hefty bag to hold my love,” and I thought, “Oh my God, I have to call Lucy.”

But, no; I can’t call Lucy. Not because Lucy has died but because Lucy is no longer talking to me. Lucy and I had a falling out several years ago, which I wanted to work out. I had apologized for my part in our disagreement, but she did not accept my amends and ever since has refused to respond to my calls or emails, ghosting me as if I were a pesky one-night stand.

Normally when I think of Lucy, I am filled with anger and resentment. Well, outrage, really. Riotous, righteous indignation. How could she just stop talking to me? And over such a minor disagreement? I go over Lucy’s crimes by which my own transgressions seem so small, like a smattering of crumbs, in comparison.

Anger Is Armor

Anger is predictable. Anger is understandable. Its edges are hard and distinct. I know where and how it’s going to feel in my body. I know it will tighten my jaw and knot my stomach and harden the nape of my neck. It will make me feel strong. Stalwart. Anchored.

But just a little under the armor of anger, if I feel my way beneath, there is something a bit more truthful…sadness. Loss. My friend who I loved so much is now no longer a part of my life. I can’t call to tell her about this lyric where Train tries to woo a woman by comparing her to a trash receptacle. I want to tell Lucy we could respond: “A Hefty bag? Well, it’s a far cry from a summer’s day. You know what, Train? Why don’t you hold your love garbage yourself?” I bet Lucy would laugh at that—her very particular laugh that holds in suspension for a moment before it overtakes her. “Here it comes,” I would always think with delight.

How sad, I think now, or rather feel, for I let myself feel the sadness underneath. Just a touch though. Sadness, or melancholy, I realize is not as predictable as anger. It’s a fluttery, tender feeling with blurred edges and the ability to pierce in unexpected places. My instinct is to return to the protective chainmail of anger, but I try to stay with the sadness nonetheless. When I remain with the naked, raw feeling, I connect to a sense of deeper loss, loss of more than this specific relationship. Tender and basic, the intuition that the whole endeavor of life is rather sad. And that it’s rather sad for all of us.

Source: andy kheng/Shutterstock
Source: andy kheng/Shutterstock

The Truth of Life Is Bittersweet

Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, when asked what it was like to be a bodhisattva, replied, “bittersweet.” That makes sense to me. I can see how sadness might connect me to a sense of the poignancy of life, a wistful perception that we are all born dying, and a hunch that life is precious precisely because of its fragility and ultimate vulnerability.

I think of the Japanese word “setsunai," which could be roughly defined as a nourishing, wistful sadness. Nina Coomes writes that “‘setsunai’ implies something once bright, now faded. It is the painful twinge at the edge of a memory, the joy in the knowledge that everything is temporary.

Is it possible that “angry” is the opposite of “happy,” rather than “sad?” Could sadness actually be a part of happiness? An essential part, even? Or maybe not happiness, but…flourishing? Aristotle’s ideal of “eudaimonia,” the highest human good or welfare?

The singer Train builds his premise toward its conclusion with the lyric, “When you move me, everything is groovy. They don't like it, sue me.” I laugh at its inanity, but then the next lyric pierces me with a “wince at the edge of memory." The lyric is “I swear to you, I’ll be there for you. This is not a drive by.”

I think of promises unkept, of loss, of moving on, and of Lucy. With sadness, I wonder where she is in the world, if she thinks of me, and if she has heard this song and laughed by herself somewhere.

Cars whiz by as I drive between the misted mountains toward the valley.

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