The Role of Sadness


People in Hungary often comment that I seem very positive. That may be true, but I also carry sadness. The two do not contradict each other. Maybe I tend to keep the sadness to myself, but I don’t run from it; I don’t see it as wrong or defective. Often it helps me see things clearly. There would be a problem if I were stuck in sadness (or in happiness, for that matter), or vacillated abruptly between the two. But that is not how it is. They live side by side.

Sadness comes from the knowledge that things often do not last, and that we ourselves are the ones, at times, who bring them to an end. An angry person blames others for this condition (what is there to be angry about, except that something has been taken away, be it a sandwich or a bit of dignity?), but a sad person does not. (Granted, one can be angry and sad at once, just as one can be happy and sad at once.) Sadness does not pinpoint the blame–or maybe it recognizes a distribution. Most of the time, when things go wrong, it is not one person’s doing alone, but the work of several, or many, or even of generations and longer history. That does not mean there’s no blame at all–often there is–but rarely can it be limited absolutely to one person, time, or place. Anger is necessary; it sharpens perception and shapes justice. It helps us speak. But it has less room, less possibility, than sadness.

Sadness cannot be absolute, or it congeals into depression, a belief that loss is all there is. Sadness and depression have different lives, different meanings. I do not believe in total loss. Something survives, sometimes things we don’t see. Sometimes a painful episode leads a person in roundabout ways to new joy. Also, lives are not contained; we affect others in ways we do not know. I remember Hermann Hesse’s story Knulp, where Knulp, walking in a snowstorm, talks to God about how little he has accomplished, and near the end of this long dialogue, just before Knulp stops and lies down, God says, “Look … I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom. In my name, you did silly things and people scoffed at you; I myself was scoffed at in you and loved in you. You are my child and my brother and a part of me. There is nothing you have enjoyed and suffered that I have not enjoyed and suffered with you.” I first read this at age twelve; why has it stayed with me all this time?


I took the photo last weekend in Budapest; a friend showed me some lesser-known beautiful buildings, including this.

P.S. This piece seems to have prompted one or two “Are you OK?” inquiries from well-meaning people. If I could not acknowledge sadness, if I insisted that life was only and always great, then people would have cause to worry! Until then (and I hope that day never comes), I am grateful for the human range.


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