Sweet Sorrow

By Jim Tune

One of my favorite books (and I like the movie, too) is the classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his book, the heroine, Teresa, struggles to be at peace with life when it’s not heavy, when it’s too much lightness, sunshine, and seemingly carefree—when it’s devoid of the anxieties that hint at darkness and mortality. She feels the constant need for gravitas, for some heaviness that says life is more than simply the present flourishing of health and comfort. For her, lightness equals superficiality.

July22_MT_JNMost of us prefer sunshine over shadow, lightheartedness over melancholy to keep heaviness and sadness at bay. We tend to run from those feelings that sadden and frighten us. But such feelings have their positive sides. Simply put, they help us stay in touch with those parts of our soul to which we are not normally attentive. In sadness, melancholy, and darkness the soul expresses things we normally refuse to hear.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson argues that there is a vital need for sadness in the world and says we’re missing out if we medicate it away. An English professor at Wake Forest University, Wilson wants readers to understand he is not romanticizing clinical depression—he believes it is a serious condition that should be treated. But he worries today’s abundance of antidepressants for treating what he calls “mild to moderate sadness” might make “sweet sorrow” a thing of the past.

I experienced a prolonged and deep grief after the death of my father. It was the tipping point of a decade in which I had lived through a steady stream of significant loss while barely acknowledging my sorrow. Thomas Moore says, “Grief is one of those painful experiences that stops us.” I have to be stopped sometimes.

Many people describe their lives as just bouncing along—the years go by, and life happens—until grief stops us. Sorrow suddenly visits in the midst of loss and brings an end to the bouncing.

Sadness causes us to ask questions like, “Is that all there is?” It reminds us of what it means to be human. It gives us weight when we are too light about our lives. It matures us, ages us so we grow appropriately and don’t pretend to be younger than we are.

The experience and embrace of melancholy was nothing new for the prophets and saints of old, yet most Christians think anything less than the immediate quenching of sadness is a sign of spiritual dysfunction. Jesus himself, when preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice on the cross, had to painfully accept there was no path to Resurrection Sunday that didn’t involve the darkness of Good Friday.

So what to do with heaviness of the soul? James Hillman suggested, “Put it into a suitcase and carry it with you.” In other words, keep it close, but contained. Keep it near and available, but don’t let it overpower you. Isn’t that, in a way, Jesus’ challenge to us? If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.

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