I was setting up my music to go for a run the other day when I came across my playlist of melancholic songs for when I’m feeling down. Actually, I have three of these playlists, depending on what flavor of sad I’m feeling. There’s “Sad Folk,” when I’m feeling down in a mellow, acoustic-guitar kind of sad. There’s “Sad Rock,” when I’m sad but also a little bit angry. And then there’s “Sad Pop,” when I want to feel down in an Air Supply kind of way (don’t judge). These playlists used to get the heaviest rotations in my library, but as I scrolled past them I realized that I hadn’t listened to any of them in months. And it disturbed me.
The last year of my life has been characterized by immense joy. Some of it has to do with my move to Portland and the wonderful people I’ve met up here. Some of it I attribute to a dream realized: a year in which I’ve been free to focus solely on writing fiction. And the centerpiece of my joy is Constantino, my husband, who grows me and makes me happy every day.
But I have a special relationship with sadness. Feelings have never come easily to me; I grew up feeling shrink-wrapped in numbness. It’s a problem common to many LGBT people who learn early on to bury their feelings deep inside. As the years go by, they forget how to unearth them. There are emotions locked up inside the fortress of my heart, and sadness has always been the key granting me access. When I struggle to identify how or what I’m feeling, a jolt of sadness from a song or a memory is often my gateway to the spectrum of emotions. It’s not merely sadness I’ve been worried about losing, but feeling itself.
I’m not talking about depression, and I’m not exalting sadness. But for those who struggle to feel deeply, the rare cry becomes something incredibly cathartic. When we were dating, I used to joke with Constantino that I was an unemotional robot, or that I had a heart made of black stone. The truth is that anyone who struggles to touch their emotions feels like a Tin Man—someone not dead and yet not fully alive.
Sadness opened up a portal to the grief of others, and helped me feel empathy far deeper than my numbness ever could. Touching my own sadness gave me eyes to see and hands to touch the sadness of others. When Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, it was not because he doubted his ability to raise his friend from the dead; it was because he was choosing to endure this most fundamental human experience: grief. Only a heart well acquainted with sadness can truly sit with the grief of another.
Without sadness, I’ve been afraid of losing the key to that fortress of feelings and empathy. But Constantino sagely pointed out that there is more than one door to that fortress. Just as sadness offers an entry point, so does joy. It’s true. I’ve cried happy tears more in the past year than I have in the whole rest of my life. Joy allows me to better celebrate the successes of others. When a gay friend who’s estranged from his family recently shared the small victory of a recent phone conversation with his mother, my heart pulsed with joy in ways it never could before. And joy helps me experience God differently, too. My understanding of grace has historically been through the lens of shame and sadness, but joy helps me appreciate God’s unmerited favor in a wholly different way.
I haven’t forgotten sadness, not in the slightest. We are all subject to the seasons of life. Just as our marriage may be going through an “ordinary time” marked by undisturbed contentment, there will still be intense seasons of grief, anger, and elation. Sadness is an essential part of the human experience, but it is also still only a part. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time for happy playlists, a time for sad playlists. And, yes, even a time for Air Supply.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Photo by Craig Cloutier, used through Flickr Creative Commons.
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