Dealing with Sadness

Psalm 22

Sadness. The blues. The National Institute of Mental health calls it an emotional state of dejection and sadness ranging from mild discouragement to real down-heartedness.It is a widespread condition. We’ve all been there at one time or another. According to Lou Harris, fifty-two percent of the adults in America describe themselves as lonely and depressed on any given day. When I picked the topic last summer, I guess I figured the percentage would probably be even higher in the dead of winter. Notice we do not say, “He arrived in the dead of spring.”

It’s not new. Its symptoms dot the pages of the Biblical record. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, Jesus, Paul. Listen to the Psalmist. “My strength drains away like water, all my bones are loose. My heart has turned to wax and melts within me. My mouth is dry as a clay pot, my tongue sticks to my jaw.” He’s got a problem.

And down through history, people of real character and contribution have shared it, suffered from times of sadness and discouragement. Musicians Mozart, Schumann, and Tchaikowsky. Lincoln was afflicted throughout his life with deep moods of melancholy which he broke only with great patience and struggle. Winston Churchill referred to his spells as the “Black Dog.” Not to mention Tolstoi, Mark Twain, William James.

So I suppose the first thing to be said is that when we are in a down mood we are in good company. Yet there is a paradox about life in America today. We certainly are a people committed to our happiness, perhaps more than most. Tocqueville noticed this about us almost two hundred years ago. As Americans we think we must be happy all the time or something is really wrong with us. Other times and places are much more comfortable with the inevitable ebb and flow of human emotion and experience.

And yet the evidence is that the more progress we have made in almost every direction, economic, social, personal, the less happy we have become. Gregg Easterbrook, one of America’s most informed and sensible writers on science, reflects on the psychological condition of Americans in his new book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He argues that we are more wealthy, powerful, free, secure, and healthy than ever and we are feeling worse.

He attributes it to highly individual expectations without the discipline and will to pay the price that leads to true happiness, satisfaction, sense of well being. We want all the warmth and emotional security of community without any of its suffocating demands or constraints; we want the benefits of family, faith, patriotism and so forth without really thinking of ourselves fundamentally as parents or creatures or citizens with all the commitments these involve. We don’t want to be lonely, but as individuals we don’t want to let love turn us into suckers.

So what is the answer. Certainly, accepting the inevitability of dark and down moods does not mean helplessness before them, wallowing in them, surrendering to them. Especially since our moods are more than just a personal affair. They affect our efficiency, our relationships with those around us, our contribution to the larger world. And now out of left field comes an issue of Time magazine to tell us that “religious people are less stressed and happier than nonbelievers. And research is beginning to explain why.”

“Comfort and joy. Inner peace. A sense of well being.” Sacred texts and sermons have long promised such rewards to the faithful. Now the rigor of scientific research is being applied to this seemingly ineffable tenet of religious belief. Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, indicates that over 1,000 studies indicate that religion buffers its adherents from worry. Religious people are less depressed, less anxious and less suicidal than nonreligious. And they are better able to cope with such crises as illness, divorce and bereavement. If you compare two people who have symptoms of depression, the more religious person will be a little less sad. Chances are he will also be a little happier.

The researchers identify several dimensions of a strong religious faith which provides an antidote to sadness. In the first place it offers a story which provides the individual meaning beyond his own solitary existence. To the extent that we let ourselves be drawn into and absorbed by the culture of consumption and diversion, catering to little more than our own interests and desires, we will find ourselves increasingly empty of focus, restless and bored. It takes some cause, some purpose that transcends ourselves to generate real satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

Now, this sense of purpose can involve nothing more than the activities that already dominate our days, dedication to our careers, caring for our kids, contributing to the community. But it requires that these be understood and embraced daily from a different perspective than our own worries and needs and routine. They must be seen in a larger light, the light of something like Jesus’ call to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. Meaning what? Doing our daily tasks and nurturing our relationships with an eye toward how they may further the rule of God’s love and will in our world. Only as we can see our commitments and activities in that larger light, can we find any sense of fulfillment in the obligations and duties that await each day. Sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at Austin, comments that “Religion provides a unifying narrative that may be difficult to come by elsewhere in society.”

But to hang on to this overarching sense of meaning involves more than an occasional glimpse of some such higher purpose. The rituals of religion, prayer, study, reflection, participation in worship provide the structures, the disciplines which keep this higher sense of purpose alive in schedules that otherwise tend to be dragged down into empty drill, just one darn thing after another, alive in the midst of the temptation to diversions such as television, which mindlessly eat up the hours. We live in a culture designed to divert us rather than focus us.

Again, according to the Time article, studies show that the more a believer incorporates religion into daily living— attending services, reading Scripture and other meaningful literature, praying, singing — the better off he or she appears to be on two measures of happiness: frequency of positive emotions and overall satisfaction with life as meaningful. Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to life satisfaction, as it grants faith in God and his purpose for us.

Natan Scharansky is now a citizen of Israel and actively involved in the political life of that nation. But not too many years ago he sat for many years in the KGB prison in Moscow. How did he get through years of imprisonment. There he received a telegram from his mother. “My dearest son! Yesterday, on January 20, Papa passed away. He went to his bed, turned toward the wall, and cried silently…the tears of a helpless child. I suddenly felt alone, that nobody and nothing was protecting me.”

Sharansky writes, “I did not want to do anything on the day I received the telegram, nor on the following day, but then I remembered the Psalm book that I had managed, with some fight, to keep with me. I opened it and immediately decided that I must read all 150 of the Psalms…starting today. The print was very tiny and my eyes began to hurt as soon as I looked at the text. Ignoring the pain, I began to copy the Psalms in large letters onto a sheet of paper, which took at least an hour for each one.

“I can’t say that I understood the Psalms completely, but I sensed their spirit and felt both the joy and the suffering of King David. His words lifted me above the mundane and directed me toward the eternal…through reading these Psalms I thought continually about Papa, Mama, and my wife, about the past and the future, and about the fate of our family. Day after day I reconciled myself with the past, and my feelings of grief and loss were gradually replaced by sweet sorrow and fond hopes…the Psalms, the songs of my heritage, became a memorial in my heart that would stay with me forever.”

It was a sense of being part of a larger tradition and story, and it was the discipline to keep that tradition and story alive in him day in and day out that enabled him not only to survive but to thrive in the worst of circumstances.

And then the research indicates that religion, faith grants a sense of well- being and satisfaction by encouraging social and spiritual support. As the Time article puts it, “Religion, after all derives from the Latin religio, meaning to bind together, linking individuals to family and ancestors, friends and community, clergy and congregation.”

One thing is certain: social isolation, unwillingness to share one’s struggles and sadness just deepens and confirms the mood and misery. When we are sad, we do tend to go into ourselves, stay alone, withdraw into isolation. And such isolation does nothing more than confirm and deepen the sadness.

Twenty-eight year old Janice, a student at Harvard Business School describes her mother. “She spends her days disappearing into movies, into specialty shops, into malls. The other week I went home, and my mother had just come back from the shopping mall. She always goes there, and always comes back with something. We don’t see most of what she brings back. I felt distant from Mom as if I was someone from another part of the world…I remember seeing her eyes; I felt inside me — I had no words for it then — her loneliness, her sadness, a sadness which she could not bring herself to name.”

You can sense not only the sadness but the isolation in these words, the inability to communicate the sadness. And part of the answer is to share it. Tell someone. For sadness loses its power a bit as we break out of the isolation, the sense that nobody understands, that we are all alone, that nobody cares. Shared sadness is softer sadness. Share the sadness. Tell God, like the Psalmist does, if you are good at that, if that is real to you.

The Psalmist starts out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from heeding my groans? My God, by day I cry to you, but there is no answer; in the night I cry but with no rest.” Words by the way which Jesus recites from the cross. But the point is that neither Psalmist nor Jesus stay there in that pit. They go on, “I will declare your fame to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. You inspire my praise in the great congregation. I will fulfill my vows in the sight of those who fear you.” Breaking out of isolation even in imagination is the beginning of strength and joy.

We are not very good at that, I know. The young couples who stream through my study on their way to the altar always reassure me that they communicate really well. But what do they communicate? Deep feelings, fearful feelings , or opinions about the weather, the election, what to have for processional music? One young man told me, “I really don’t tell her when I feel bad because she has enough troubles and it is not fair to burden her with more.”

But the Apostle insists that in our life together as people of faith we are precisely to bear one another’s burdens. Not seldom I will talk with someone who says, “But I don’t want to be a burden to my family, my friends.” But that is what life together is all about, bearing one another’s burdens.

How typical of many of us, especially of the male gender. We have been trained to be tough. Don’t show your feelings. Keep your pains and troubles to yourself. But that is no excuse for staying that way, unwilling to share the joys and hurts of life. One thing is certain. If we don’t share the pains and sorrows of life, we are shutting down the emotional capacity to also share the joys of life.Listen to Paul. He writes passionately of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. He writes to friends in Corinth whom he is afraid are alienated from him. He writes. “I have opened my heart wide to you all. In fair exchange then (I speak like a father to his children) open wide your hearts to me.”

Listen to Jesus. “I have not called you servants, but friends for I have told you everything.” And as he then goes out to the garden, he wants them nearby and awake, supporting him in his hour of need.

Not easy, scary, but necessary. Because we are social beings, and it is only in community, in honest sharing with our God and with one another, that we help one another out of the dumps and over the dips in our emotional journey.

Time magazine tells the story of the power of faith to make for deep satisfaction and joy in the life of one Karen Granger, 41. Last year, her husband Eric was laid off from his telecom job. Then in March, finally pregnant and eager to start a family, she had a miscarriage. One month later, her closest cousin, Sharon received a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. No sooner did Granger return from visiting Sharon in Tower Lakes, Illinois, than two hurricanes smacked her hometown of Boynton Beach, Florida. Finally, in early December one of her best friends died at age 50 from a brain tumor.

After that she quite naturally found herself asking, “Why, God? Why?”

But Granger, a devout Christian who attends Presbyterian services weekly and prays daily, doesn’t allow circumstances to get her down. “We’re not in heaven, yet,” she says, “and these things happen on this earth.” Granger credits religion with helping her cope and giving her a feeling of connection and purpose. “We’re putting our lives in God’s hands and trusting he has our best interests at heart,” she says. “I’ve clung to my faith more than ever this year. As a consequence, I haven’t lost my joy.”

And as I read that I thought, Bowen, you’ve got some work to do. Care to join me?