Sadness and the Human Experience

Sadness and the Human Experience

I’ve noticed in myself a tendency toward avoidance and fear of difficult and painful things—not so much in experience, but more in philosophical thought and reflection.

You might be thinking this is an obvious and reasonable response (I agree to a certain extent) but I think my fear and avoidance of such things is partially rooted in lack of acknowledgment and engagement with such things.

Every once in a while I reflect on my own mortality. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I will die someday. I know it intellectually, that life is finite, but to really come to grips with it is difficult, scary, and uncomfortable—probably why most of us don’t really spend much time dwelling on our own finite existence. I can’t blame anyone for not doing so. But what is lost as a result?

When I was in college, I took a classed titled “Death, Grief, and Loss”. I thought it was going to be a tad depressing but figured it was an important enough topic to persevere through. To my surprise, it was a relief to be in a room full of people talking about death. There was something refreshing about taking a scary and uncomfortable topic and putting it front and center—reading books and articles about it, discussing it with my classmates, and writing papers on it. It naturalized death as part of the human experience—not as some unspeakable mystery left ignored and unexplored (and therefore feared).

Of course death is still mysterious and remains a somewhat uncomfortable topic for me, but my Death, Grief and Loss class was one of the first times I came to the realization that not grappling with difficult issues leads to greater fear and insecurity than facing them head on.

Humbly facing the difficult aspects of our human existence is something that we lose when we are inundated with issues, concerns, political positions, tribalism, and side-taking. Expressed outrage about a certain issue is often trumped by another outrage (see the Atlantic article “My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage”) or it is debated, debunked, and invalidated.

People tend to gravitate to one of the two extremes (probably for many complex reasons) but also because it is uncomfortable to just be in the suffering. Trumping, one-upping, or debunking someone’s opinion are ways of avoiding coming to grips with the deep sadness and discomfort that lies behind that opinion.

Abortion has been revitalized as a hot topic of discussion and ethics (as of the writing of this post). Opinions and arguments are blazing. Sides are being taken. But in the middle of the debate there are complex layers of sadness that seem to get lost in the whirlwind. There are things that are just sad regardless of legal standing, political positions, or personal beliefs:

  • There is a deep sadness in knowing that babies are terminated.
  • There is a deep sadness in thinking about the painful reason’s why a mother might pursue an abortion.
  • There is a deep sadness in thinking about someone being sexually assaulted.
  • There is a deep sadness in thinking about a child being born into a family where they aren’t wanted or loved.
  • There is a deep sadness in thinking about children being born into poverty.
  • There is a deep sadness in thinking about the turmoil behind the decision to keep or terminate an unborn life.

There is so much sadness surrounding this topic but it often gets all covered up in anger, blame, and tribalistic side-taking.

Sadness is part of the human experience. We make it worse and more complicated when we cover it up through avoidance, anger, righteous indignation, and defensiveness.

In his book “Let Your Life Speak” Parker Palmer writes, “As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique a terminal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.”

Because he didn’t have a framework for interpreting the “darkness” he was experiencing, he simply deemed himself a failure. Because others tend to keep their darkness and pain hidden, we too tend to feel like failures when we experience the same because we think we are alone.

When we don’t have a framework for the difficult things in life, for the deep sadnesses, we act out in distorted ways that are often damaging to ourselves and to others—and we often miss the heart of the issue at hand altogether.

It is deeply and intrinsically human to feel sadness. The more we fail to talk about, acknowledge, and explore our sadnesses—the less human we’ll act toward ourselves and one another.

(For more on the “being with” sadness and difficulty, see my previous post titled “Being In” the Suffering.)

To close things out on a somewhat lighter note, I often come back to this clip of Louie C.K. on Conan O’Brien where he talks about an experience with his own sadness. He does so humorously and with a deep sense of authenticity that I appreciate every time I watch it.


Photo Credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Hocking Hills, Ohio

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