Summary: We never quite know what to do with the emotion of sadness. Here's a biblical look at dealing with sadness.
In the Disney Pixar film, Inside Out, we get to journey inside the mind of 11 year-old Riley
Anderson as she wrestles with all the conflicting emotions that comes from a stressful move from a simple, stable life in rural Minnesota to a hurried, unknown life in San Francisco. Chief among these personified emotions is Joy, who has dominated Riley’s childhood until now. Joy and Riley’s other emotions (fear, disgust and anger) have never quite figured out what to do with Sadness, portrayed as a despondent blue teardrop shaped blob (show video here). Riley’s other emotions struggle to cope with the cross-country move, and they struggle with what to do with sadness. Riley does her best to suppress it. She wants the move to go smoothly for mom and dad, so she puts on a happy face, and inside, Joy attempts to keep Sadness away from the “core memories,” and through a swirl of misguided intentions and an amusing struggle, Joy and Sadness both end up outside of “head”quarters. Joy does her best to control the situation. It is an interesting interplay between the emotions, especially of joy and sadness in the life of an 11 year-old. Quite expected for an 11 year-old. The problem is too many of us who have grown up don’t understand the interplay of joy and sadness, nor do we always understand the positive role sadness can play in our lives. It’s true for non-believers, and may I dare say, it can be especially pronounced among those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ.
Theologian Ben Myers writes, “In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.” Myers speaks the truth. We save our best faces for Sunday morning; we hide terrible secrets and unspeakable suffering behind the veneer of a firm handshake and a response of “just fine” when asked how we’re doing. Our smiles reflect our faith in the cult of Christian happiness.
It’s no wonder we do that. We’re taught that from the time we’re born, aren’t we? Didn’t our parents tell us when we were sad or crying to “Cheer up,” and not to be sad? And, we teach our children to sing “Put on a Happy Face:”
Grey skies are gonna clear up
Put on a happy face
Brush off the clouds and cheer up
Put on a happy face
Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy
It's not your style
You'll look so good that
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile
The song goes on to say:
Pick out a pleasant outlook
Stick out that noble chin
Wipe out that "full of doubt" look
Slap on a happy grin
And spread sunshine
All over the place
Just put on a happy face
In western culture, both within Christianity and without, we’ve bought the lie that joy trumps all, and sadness needs to be suppressed. Nothing could be further from the truth. So the wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us this morning with his own poetry of life. He reminds us there is an appropriate time for everything under heaven, and he sets out to establish the rhythm that is life. Were we to read all of chapter three we would discover from his writing that it is God who has established the patterns of life, and God has created us as emotional beings. God has given us the emotion of joy, of anger, of fear…and yes, of sadness. The writer reminds us there is a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to grieve and a time to dance. The wisdom writer counsels us to stop straining against the limits of life and find the real joy and beauty that exists in the daily living of life with all its ups and downs. It’s a lesson we do well to learn.
Sadness is a healthy emotion. Sure, it’s viewed as a negative emotion, but research has shown that negative emotions, dealt with in healthy ways leads to greater health. Our problem is we confuse sadness with depression. Unlike depression, sadness is natural and is generally connected with identifiable experiences of pain or loss, or even a meaningful moment of connection or joy that makes us value our lives. Depression, on the other hand, arises without a clear explanation or can result from an unhealthy reaction to a painful event, where we either steel ourselves against our natural reaction to the event or get overwhelmed by it. When we’re in a depressed state, we often feel numb or deadened to our emotions. We may have feelings of shame, self-blame or self-hatred, all of which are likely to interfere with a constructive behavior, instead creating a lack of energy and vitality. Sadness, on the other hand, can be awakening.