My previous post earned a conversation with a concerned friend who thought I might be clinically depressed or suffering from concealed depression (aha, a brand new disease !). Like I said in the post, I am not prone to depression, but this does not mean I have not felt despair, sadness and grief. I have. I am somewhere in that well now, but slowly finding my way back to the surface.
Now, I know myself, but I also like to guard against denial. I went online after we hung up and read several articles on depression, even took a few quizzes, enough to confirm what I already know: I’m just sad, and I know it’s something that comes with my life experiences of late. If I went into detail, you would agree that it is a very sad time, indeed.
What I learned from this brief conversation is that people have vastly different views and comfort levels around sadness and grief. I believe the modern world is too quick to categorize this as a disease that must be medicated and cured. I am aware that clinical depression is a serious condition that merits professional care (and we can be grateful that many options are available), but I also think we carry too much discomfort around sadness. It has become so easy to label it as dysfunction and illness, the way we do pregnancy and birth, when these are but natural life processes that do not always need medical intervention.
I was grateful for the concern, but I have a totally different view. I believe grief and sadness are as normal as mirth and joy. It is part of the rhythm of the soul–its necessary ebb and flow. As human beings we are part of a cosmic polarity of night and day, contraction and expansion, breathing in and out. These rhythms form us. How would we know joy, gratitude and appreciation, if not for our intimate encounters with despair and loneliness? Why must we worry so when a friend seems to be going through her dark night of the soul—a journey all must go through when life takes a cruel and unexpected turn?
I think depression happens when we can’t get to the bottom of our sadness. It engulfs us when we are unable to express our pain, to feel around its edges, swim around its center. It smothers us when we can’t find movement within it. So I believe we need to dive deep into our well of grief and get acquainted because there is much about ourselves it can teach us. If we are comfortable in our sadness, feel our longing, sit with despair, dissolve into tears and then sleep peacefully in its aftermath, we can emerge with wisdom and strength. This is simply inner evolution. Sadness grows us. If we fight or refuse it, view it as an enemy, we will only build impenetrable walls around us. And that’s when we can get lost in the darkness.
People deal with loss in very different ways. I tend to jump in; I know there is no going around it. I try to understand what I’m going through—its causes, my role, and the lessons I need to learn. I seek out my coven of friends and healers who listen and give counsel (helpful and not). Then I retreat into the quiet, gather what I have heard, accept their offerings, throw out what was mere chatter, and learn to sit with my grief, my questions, my pain. I inhale words of wisdom from others and exhale my own. I work with myself in ways I have explored, and open myself to ways I haven’t. And this is why the quiet and introspection are very important in my process, because it allows me to hear and see the ways I need to move that perhaps I have not tried nor seen before.
For two weekends in a row, I stayed home alone. I welcomed this time and planned for it. After months of major life changes, traveling more than I was used to, facing one emotional upheaval after the next, I was thirsting for this luxury. I journalled, moved, danced, dissolved, liquefied. I moved the heaviness inside me, allowed myself to soften, until I felt some ease. And then I did it again. I worked with my body. I worked with colors. I listened to music and sat with whatever arose, trusting that every step was an answer towards my healing, even though it was slow, heavy and dark at times. (Of course I also took generous breaks with Netflix just to laugh and cry with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.) My friend saw this as isolation, hence the label of “depression”, but to me it was a conscious choice. Introverts gather energy from the quiet and I always need a lot of that to heal. Every now and then I will connect with a friend, but these days I choose mindfully. I know what I need.
When you can feel sad and see your sadness as separate from you, it’s healthy. You can travel into the deep recesses of your soul and know you are safe. You are not the sadness, but it is your time to explore it. To have your hope, passion, or a closely held love taken away without warning, will of course cause grief. Isn’t that a healthy human response ? Numbing yourself with people and activities is simply putting aside the inevitable and probably creating a harder fall when it comes time to face yourself. And we all know that day always comes. We can be grateful for our sadness, pain and grief, because they bring us back to what is essential and true for us today—and this is sadly lost in the outer world, to which we often ascribe too much importance.
Sometimes I feel that sadness is to the soul what a fever is to the body; It is the medicine. It is an internal compass pointing at the space that needs tending, a wound that would fester if you did not turn your attention and gentleness towards it. So you face it. This tending begins to illumine the darkened spaces. Little by little, you are lifted closer to the surface. Until one day you are back on solid ground renewed, transformed, reshaped by all the work you did. Is this so farfetched?
I appreciate all the therapy and coaching available in the world today, but I think we are making a habit of surrendering the healing of our soul life to others, when this is primarily work of the Self. We become overly dependent on the opinion of the “experts”, and stay mostly in our heads, too afraid to be alone with our sorrows. Yet, it is all too easy to get lost in diagnosis, psychological jargon, of seeing life through a lens of woundedness rather than wholeness, which includes that aspect of the self that must learn to be friends with pain and grief. It is perfectly fine to get help when it becomes too overwhelming, but I think the goal is to be able to embrace darkness along with the light. If one can recognize that to be human means living in appreciation of both, we would more easily find compassion for ourselves and others.
And so I say hello to sadness, my old and dear friend. I did not expect this visit, but it seems it is our season again.
“And this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside. The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more it will be our destiny, and when on some later day it ‘happens’ (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary–and toward this our development will move gradually–that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet