It's Okay to be Sad


Some of the responses to my post about anger brought up these interesting ideas: Anger may be a secondary emotion, something that arises out of some other more primary feelings, like sadness or grief. There may be a general cultural norm of avoidance of recognizing, acknowledging, sitting with, and walking through difficult emotions like sadness and grief. Those two thoughts got me thinking.

I remembered Mr. Rogers. One of the core ideas I remember him trying to impart came to mind. That is the honoring of emotions. It’s okay to be sad, grieving, angered, joyful, and peaceful. I remembered my own moments of frustration when my emotions were dismissed or disallowed – even by my own thinking. I remember thinking, “You’re not supposed to feel this way…”

Life is full of highs and lows, but they don’t happen all at once and they don’t always have to be there. We can’t always control or anticipate how we may feel. We don’t have to have a high to balance out a low, or a low to balance out a high. We don’t have to be up or down, either. We can just be. Highs and lows in and of themselves are subjective, too, and don’t have to align with other’s perspective. In my life I’ve experienced such misalignment quite often. At the end of a performance, the audience would be leaving on a high, while I would be coming down from the rush of performing, experiencing a kind of low. Similar juxtapositions happen in sports. Only accounting for our lives by measuring the highs and lows, the ease or the hardship, the wealth or the poverty, denies us of the time and space to simply walk.

Walking through life is important. It gives us time to observe, ask questions, learn, and grow. We can adjust our speed, look around, and keep a good pace without getting burned out. We can see who else is with us. We can share with them. However, there are many other things we can do instead of walking. We can run or hide or stand still. If we run, we may miss something important. We have a higher likelihood of running into a wall or tripping. We can only run with folks who run equally as fast. Hiding can be dangerous. Weird things grow in the shadows. False narratives develop. Hiding can easily lead to lying, which leads to a splitting of the soul. We may become a victim to our purposeful ignorance if we are not involved in our own thinking and feeling. Standing still might be a bit better than hiding. At least we are out in the open. But we aren’t moving. No activity or direction. Whatever might be on us can continue to grow if we’re just standing still. Things grow on us anyway. We need to be in motion – actively involved in keeping what is good and letting what isn’t good drop off.

Of course, this isn’t just about the physical. I’m thinking about our inner lives here as well. Emotions can be a rollercoaster, especially for highly sensitive people – and I tend to think of all people as highly sensitive. We must give ourselves the time and attention, patience and gentleness, love and kindness, as we are walking. Emotions are great markers. They can tell us how we feel about a particular experience, circumstance, or notion. The challenge here is to keep our emotions from becoming our motivators. If they guide our actions, we become slaves to how we feel. By extension, if we chase feelings, either the experience of them (as in happiness and ecstasy) or the relief from them (as in grief or sadness) we will never be done chasing. Emotions are fickle, dodging any sense of stability. If we engage in this chase, we open the door for our entire being to become subject to the rollercoaster of our emotions. In this framing, any experience of ecstasy or relief from pain will be temporary. The chase will continue, often intensifying, until our lives are completely run by how we feel. I think there is a different way.

Honoring emotions

Honoring our emotions looks like thanking a 5-year-old for telling us the same story for the tenth time. We must mean it every time. We must be truly thankful for hearing them. All they know is that they have a story, and it needs to be told. They have to be sure that we’ve really heard them, too. Maybe we need to engage with questions? Maybe we have to stop other things that we are doing to show that we have given our full attention to them and their story? The 5-year-old’s (and our emotion’s) desire to be heard is not bad. We just need to listen.

Learning from emotions

Listening brings up a whole other world of possibilities. When we stop to listen, we can interrupt our need for action. Most emotions have an attached action close by. When we feel, we often act. Feelings seem to have a direct line of communication to our bodies that our minds do not. But what if we could interrupt that line? Can we still hear our feelings without automatically experiencing all the actions that come with them? Maybe.

In my experience my emotions have remained somewhat big, loud, scary, and uncomfortable. I’m a crier. However, the duration has diminished. It’s as if they know that I’ll hear them. The crying that often accompanies sadness goes from zero to ugly in under two seconds, but lasts for only a few minutes. “It’s okay,” I say. Not that the circumstances are okay, but rather that it is okay to be sad. As I honor my feelings it is as if my body responds with a “Oh, okay, you know how we are feeling…we have been heard and can relax a bit.”

I’m learning to sit with the grief and pain and overwhelming joy. Those things that are “too much” for me to handle. I let the feelings flow, while thinking about why I’m responding in such a way. What makes me this sad? Or this happy? As I’ve thought about these things, what I respond to, and how I respond, has organically changed.

This of course takes time, attention, and kindness directed toward my inner being. I am happy to spend the time to listen, the attention to engage, and the kindness to approach my inner being. I do this because I want good for my inner being. I want what is good for what is happening inside me – for the person I am becoming.

As I think a little more about this, I am struck by how much of a quagmire all of this is. Emotions are messy, entangled with thinking, and expressed through the body. We can be found completely overwhelmed by mess. We can spend years trying to navigate and untangle the connections. Pursuing understanding, untangling, and healing is a good thing. However, we are limited people with limited understanding and resources. This is not a journey to be taken lightly. We may need help along the way. There is no single solution for every situation we find ourselves in, but there may be a single focus.

One Thing

Emotions have a way of snatching attention. So do many other things in life. After experiencing acute feelings of being pulled in too many directions, I’ve been curious about finding a different way. I’ve tried to find a single focus. What is that one thing I can set my mind to that will set all other things in their proper place?

I have found my answer in this proposition: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (The book of Matthew, Chapter 6) There are many questions such a proposition may bring up. What is this Kingdom? How do we seek this kingdom? Why should I want to seek this Kingdom? Once taken on as a pursuit, there is a lot of “working out what this looks like” to be done. How does this proposition affect my responses to my circumstances? There, of course are other things we would need to address to flush this proposition out more fully, and not enough room to cover them all here.

I share the proposition only to share that I have found one thing that I can do, and do first, that sets everything else – my emotions, body, life’s concerns – in their proper place. It does not automatically eliminate the bad and amplify the good circumstances. Rather it fundamentally restructures my relationship to each part of my self and the world around me. There is plenty to be sad, angry, or frustrated about. There are also things that can bring us joy and peace. All fit within the scope of the Kingdom of God, and are set in a good place within us when under the influence of that Kingdom.

Can we imagine a world in which goodness flows where sadness, pain, and anger have been? Can we imagine a world in which the vision and pursuit of goodness sets our circumstances in a different light? Can we imagine a world in which love fundamentally changes our responses to the people and experiences we encounter?

It’s okay to be sad, but as I begin to envision this different kind of world, I am encouraged. I am hopeful that there will be a time when every tear that falls will only be from the overwhelming awe and wonder of love and goodness that that eye is experiencing.