Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.
Sadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.
As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.
I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.
Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.
Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.
I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:
If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.