“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There has been a lot of sad news lately. It isn’t really my sad news but that of folks I care about: Friends who are dealing with cancer and other diseases, reports of people’s somewhat silent struggles with family or friends, and then those unforeseen things like traffic fatalities. It’s the sudden ones that get us, I think, the unexpected events and emotions. Sadness sneaks up on me when I least expect it, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. I’m a happy person, and sadness is uncomfortable. Many others find themselves in the same situation in a world that seems to be happy driven. To the world we might appear cold, but it is simply our sadness.
Traffic was at a standstill on the interstate recently. It took over two hours for people to get back on the road. Lots of people were inconvenienced, late to work and appointments, because of an accident. I had a friend who had been in the traffic and noticed that as soon as traffic could move people seemed to become testy and rude. Someone might have died, but life didn’t stand still and manners had gone out the window. The news reports the next morning confirmed that a young mother had died in that accident, and hearing the news, sadness filled me. I struggled to put a smile on my face for quite a bit, and Longfellow’s words rang true for me. I had sorrows which the world knew not. I wasn’t meaning to be cold but was simply sad.
Rarely do people want to know our sadness, or our anger, frustration, or even our happiness. People just want us to be ‘normal’, whatever that is. Don’t be over-anything, and everyone seems to be ok with you. Have too much happy or sad or angry, and people are at a loss for what to do with you. My struggle is with the sadness part. I’m not sure why sadness grips me as it does, and even though you might never tell people how you really feel, some of you struggle with sadness too.
Pixar must have recognized the dilemma of what to do with our emotions when they came out with the movie “Inside Out”. A young girl deals with a full menu of emotions, and it would seem that the takeaway for the viewer is that it’s ok to feel; it’s ok to feel many different things. Emotions are normal. It’s when we treat them as unwanted that is abnormal. As I write this I immediately think of my friend who is so great about letting her young daughter express her sadness over things you might think are trivial, such as the music not playing. She says “The struggle is real,” and it is.
What if we stopped to recognize that within each of us is a young child falling apart because the music was turned off or because our sister destroyed our makeshift puppet theater? That child is within you and within me, and allowing them to feel sadness without punishing them could make the difference in how we relate with the rest of the world.
Honoring your feelings of sadness seems to be one of the best things we can do. For you or the person you know is sad, try these things:
- Accept what you are feeling and notice where you are feeling it. Maybe your chest is tight, your eyes are about to overflow with tears, or your body is incredibly tired. Instead of ignoring what you feel, accept it.
- Try to give a name to your sadness–is it obvious because someone you love died or is sick; is it really hard to pinpoint because you can’t think of any reason you shouldn’t be happy? Take a minute to acknowledge the source. Maybe you won’t be able to figure out the source, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still feeling that sadness.
- Sit in it. Maybe you can’t stop right where you are, but allow yourself the opportunity to just sit in your sadness when you are able to get a moment to be alone. You can sit in your feelings as you sit in the car (make sure it’s running if it’s hot outside, please), in the bathroom, or picking up sticks in the yard. Don’t make it difficult on yourself.
- Do something with your sadness. If you don’t feel like talking to someone, maybe you’ll write about it in a journal or express it in some other form of art. Emotions can feed wonderful creations!
Because we were told long ago to keep a stiff upper lip or that big boys and girls don’t cry, many of us have spent a lifetime thinking that reacting with sadness was wrong and weak. You have the right to keep thinking that way, but you don’t have the right to impose that thinking on someone else. We are full of emotions that all need to be addressed, but sadness seems to be the one most difficult for other people to understand. Ignoring the sadness, stuffing it back into the corner won’t make it go away, and most likely it will spill out when we least expect it because we didn’t give it a chance to be a part of us a long time ago.
Only in our kindness to ourselves are we able find compassion for others. The next time you think someone seems cold, maybe you could ask them about their secret sorrow.