Experiencing sadness is an invitation to remember love
Sometime early on in adulthood, I began to notice I often felt sad when I was on vacation. This sadness wasn’t something that I experienced as a child. In the long summer days of age 8, 10 and 12, I was sometimes bored but rarely sad.
But that changed, maybe around the time I turned 20.
By “sad,” I don’t mean I was paralyzed with sorrow, that my chest was heaving with sobs or anything like that. I don’t even mean that I was sad all the time. There were and are a lot of moments during vacation when I am plain-old joyous. Rather I mean that there was usually at least an hour or two each vacation day when I carried something like the dull weight of homesickness, a vague but persistent melancholy.
Early on, I assumed these feelings of sadness were a byproduct of being an underemployed stagehand. When you aren’t working as much as you’d like, a vacation feels less like time off and more like still another day when your day planner is empty. But then I got full-time gigs, first at the Vancouver Symphony and later at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.
And still the sadness continued.
I needed a new theory about what was going on, an explanation for why my time away from work came standard installed not only with novels, potato chips and afternoon naps, but also with a half a pound of sighs. Still I was stumped.
It is only recently I began to wonder if the reason I couldn’t make sense of the regular intersection of my vacations and my melancholy is I had insisted on framing this intersection as a problem.
This summer – while on vacation and feeling vaguely sad – I read a marvelous essay by the contemporary writer Leslie Jamison. In it, Jamison wonders if we could allow ourselves to understand sadness “as something other than a feeling meant to be replaced,” if we could stop trying to cure sadness and instead allow that it might be beautiful.
In our culture, Jamison’s suggestion is very nearly heresy. Here in the West, here in America in particular, we grow up hearing the story that if you just make the right moves in your pursuit of happiness, you can – you should – catch happiness and never let it go. Recently I leafed through a self-helpy book in which the author, full of tough love, asked me if I was ready to set my limitations aside and choose to be happy all the time.
Reflecting on my own experience, reflecting on Jamison’s essay, I think my answer to that question is no.
Such a choice, assuming that it was even possible, would come at a terrible cost. That’s because one of the things that makes sadness beautiful is that it is an invitation to pay attention, to notice, to remember.
In particular, it is an invitation to remember love.
In sadness we remember the people whom we love and see no more. We remember the things we have done and left undone. We remember that this world, glorious as it is, is not as it ought to be. We remember that our time here is a fleeting gift.
This remembering matters. If we let it, it will change us.
There is a line in Psalm 130 that delights and startles and intrigues me every time that I read it, every time that we sing or chant it in church. Here it is in the poetry of the King James translation:
My soul waiteth for the Lord
more than they that watch for the morning:
I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
This is a waiting – a longing – so active and so intense that the psalmist has to name it twice.
Maybe this waiting for God is what we encounter in our sadness. And maybe the reason that the psalmist experiences it in the cold loneliness of the night and that I experience it during the unstructured afternoons of a vacation is simply that that’s when we have enough time to do so.
So much of our lives are taken up with busyness, with rushing around under the sun. And we cannot both rush and wait.
If the psalmist is right, then the waiting, the sadness, that sometimes comes when we slow down is good news.
If you have ever waited for the morning, you will know two things. First, you will know it seems like morning is never going to come. And second, you will know morning does come.
At last, at long last, the sun comes over the horizon, shining like Jesus walking out of the tomb. After all our waiting, maybe it is a little easier for us to remember that this new day is and always was a miracle.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.