It’s Okay to Be Sad

Sad woman black and white photo

Often, we are sad precisely because we don’t want to be sad, or suffer because we don’t want to suffer. We want to feel good, but we always stumble along the way, or else find out that what we achieve or attain isn’t what we hoped it would be. And we suffer, and we grow sad. But what happens if we reserve some space for sadness and suffering in our life? What if we don’t try to chase them away with positive thinking or a hopeful attitude but beckon to them to come nearer, that we may understand them better?

“Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don’t know what work it is these states are performing within you?”

As a teenager, and then as a young adult, I wallowed in sadness. There were many things I did not like about myself and my body, and about the people around me. I became withdrawn and critical, mostly of myself, but also of others. What kept me going was the hope that in the future my sadness would end, that someone or something would rescue me from it.

“Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where it all comes from and where it is leading? You well know you are in a period of transition and want nothing more than to be transformed.”

Suffering may lessen in time, but does it ever go away? I mean deep suffering, the result of trauma of some kind, or inherited from our parents. Years have passed and those early sufferings are still with me – I have come to realize that they will never go away, not even if I am at peace with myself and contented with my life.

“If there is something ailing in the way you go about things, then remember that sickness is the means by which an organism rids itself of something foreign to it. All one has to do is help it to be ill, to have its whole illness and let it break out, for that is how it mends itself.”

It is easier to deny suffering – and in the process to become bitter, critical, negative, mean, withdrawn, or apathetic – than to accept it. We have to be careful. If we don’t understand where it springs from, accept it, and keep it close, but push it in a dark corner of our mind, it may grow into a monster, it may silently change us for the worse.

“There is so much going on in you now. You must be patient as an invalid and trusting as a convalescent, for you are perhaps both. And more than that: you are also the doctor responsible for looking after himself. But with all illnesses there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait.”

Let’s accept suffering and sadness. Let’s suffer well. Let’s be sad and okay about it. All we have to do is not to deny our suffering, not seek easy cures for sadness. There aren’t any.

What’s the last thing that made you sad?

All quotes are taken from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Charlie Louth, Penguin Classics

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11 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Be Sad

  1. All too often I see those who seek meditation fall into the trap of using it to make themselves happy, comfortable, at peace….instead I suggest they use it to pay attention to, to learn to be very aware of, wherever they actually are in the moment. Noticing is often so much harder than pushing away, but so much more valuable. After all, sadness, anger, depression, suffering..these things happen in the present moment too…even while on the cushion. And they deserve awareness as well. Usually I am called a pessimist for this perspective…I prefer realist. Thank you for this post.

  2. This was terribly insightful, Vincent. It’s true, suffering does stay with us for years and years. But I think suffering can be like hope in a way. A small scarlet blossom in the cloud of darkness. For example, I know a lady who suffers a great deal. She has lost everything she owned twice over, her daughter was brutally murdered, her husband is abroad and has cheated on her multiple times; he didn’t even come to see her when they found our her daughter was murdered. She suffers physical ailments too, but whenever I see her, her face is glowing and bright. She always has a smile for everybody. I only know about her suffering through my mother who is very close to her, she never lets anybody know how bad she is feeling. So, suffering can impact people in a good way too. It can make them more considerate of others, which in turn makes them better people. In a way, and with the right attitudes, I think suffering is important!

    1. Without a doubt! I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that suffering results in more positive change and decisive action in the world than contentment or happiness does, which is often good only for the ego.

  3. Suffer well – I think people forget or are told that to suffer is something to snap out of (that old chestnut) or something to be overcome as soon as possible. Sometimes to suffer is to overcome the cause, perhaps by avoiding it the pain remains or increases?

    Suffering may lessen in time, but does it ever go away? I mean deep suffering, the result of trauma of some kind, or inherited from our parents. < That is a very good question. And frankly, no. Early life is such a precious time, when the childs brain is most susceptible to everything, that when that period (and into teenage years) is majorly effected, as plastic as the brain can be, I think the scars of terrible parenting remain. The trick then is to deal with them while moving forward. Perhaps if memories could deleted people could move on? But then the synapses are so hard wired going into adulthood I think even if memory deletion were possible, the trauma would remain in some form.

  4. I was thinking and writing about this very thing this week. Suffering also binds us together as humans in a way nothing else can. I always enjoy your writing!

  5. Yes, and I also like the maxim “This too shall pass,” which first appeared in the works of medieval Persian Sufi poets. It’s a godo one to remember during periods of exceptional sadness or trauma. I agree that wallowing is not such a good thing.

  6. The last thing that made me sad was my bank balance! No, sorry – I don’t mean to be frivolous; but aren’t these extremes of emotion and our celebration of them the very stuff of art? How can you appreciate the highs unless you have experienced the lows- from nothing to everything then back again – ‘If you can make a heap of all your winnings and lose them in a game of Pitch and Toss; then stoop, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss’? Or something like that…

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