11. Sadness

I’ve recently made a new friend: sadness. I’ve known sadness for a long time, and it’s been hanging around with me even longer, but I’ve only recently made friends with it. I used to pretend it wasn’t there, bar the door when I saw it coming, and look for a way to get rid of it if it got inside. Nowadays, though I don’t invite sadness to visit me, when it does come to visit, I invite it in and offer it some tea. Paradoxically, I think I’m happier now that I’ve let sadness into my life.
Like many people, I was raised by parents who didn’t want me to be sad. That certainly doesn’t qualify as grand-scale emotional abuse, but now I wish they had let me feel sadness more when it came. It’s a pretty good emotion. It teaches. Not that I think parents or teachers should devise ways to make children sad. But life already provides plenty of chances to experience sadness, and too many adults have learned to fight the feeling. President Eisenhower responded to the death of his child’s dog by buying an identical dog, never telling his child. I must have been about ten years old when I read about it, and at the time, I thought it was a wonderful thing to do. Then I looked at my dog, Chipper, suspiciously. No, it was the same Chipper I’d always known. I wish President Eisenhower had been honest with his child.
Medicating sadness through various cheering-up strategies is one of our national pastimes. Some people ingest or inhale substances (chocolate counts). Some go to cheerful places or rent cheerful movies. Our culture supports this approach: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile.” “Put on a happy face.” I haven’t kept up with more recent songs, but I’ll bet the message is still in there somewhere. Sadness has gotten a pretty bad rap; it doesn’t seem to have full citizenship the way happiness does.
As a teacher, I often hear adults respond to children’s sadness in ways that are in keeping with our cultural taboo: “Cheer up. Maybe you’ll do better next time.” It’s true, of course. Maybe the child will do better next time. But maybe, for the child, that’s not the point. Maybe the child needs a little time to be sad, and perhaps some recognition of and respect for the sadness: “That feels pretty bad, doesn’t it? You really wanted to do better, didn’t you?” And maybe the child needs to cry. Many of us have learned that words that “make” a child cry must be the wrong words. But sometimes words that help a child cry, or permit and respect tears are exactly the right words.

Comments are closed.