On the Nature of Sadness


Everybody has problems, we all know this.  Often our sympathy for others is limited, too many things going on in our own lives.  Sometimes we even resent the tragic, the terminally sad.  More often we simply turn away with a head shake, perhaps even with a tear in our eye, and we are thankful that whatever is happening to another is not a part of our lives.


Sometimes we consume ourselves with tragedy–other people’s as well as our own.  I know that I do.  All the books I read are miserable.  My favorite movies are tragedies.  My favorite sort of music, well, here, have a listen:

Do not let the title of this song fool you.  It is a funeral dirge.  This is not my favorite song–surely not–but it is one that seems to form the background noise of my life.  Although a statement like that gives me too much credit, appropriates another’s vision and forcibly aligns it with my own.  I suppose this is what music does.

Images can do this to us too, a horrifying depiction of the worst things in the world:

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I do not mean to depress you, or upset you, or (horrifically) cause you to laugh out loud, but sometimes the only way we can cope with the misery of the world is to presume hilarity.  Let me give you a brief example of this phenomenon, where such endless sadness eventually becomes absurd.  The great Joseph Conrad, author of, most famously, Heart of Darkness (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781593080211&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used)–surely a bleak tale–also wrote one of my all time favorite books, The Secret Agent (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781853260650&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), a brutal tale of political intrigue where the ultimate conclusion is that everything is meaningless.  Here’s a brief summary:

So this miserable guy, married to a woman who hates him and only stays with him because he helps her care for her mentally handicapped brother (who happens to adore the guy), is a low level spy with British intelligence in the years before World War I.  His job is to report on the Communists who are his buddies and who hang out with him at the pornography shop he runs as a cover business.  These Communists are do-nothings who babble theory halfheartedly and with little comprehension while drinking and giggling over the nudie pics.  There is nothing worth reporting.  These are just losers, barking about philosophies they do not even want to put into action.


Anyway, the Intelligence Agency has finally had enough and they order the guy to engineer a terrorist act–blow up the Greenwich-Means tower, and then they can blame it on the Reds and start rounding them up.  Now the guy does not care at all, not about his friends or the service or even the people who may die over such a treacherous act.  He has lost faith in everything and believes in nothing.  Everything annoys him;  even his wife’s hatred is indifference.  And so he gets materials for a bomb from his buddies, who are excited because at least making a bomb sounds like fun.  They never even ask what he needs it for.


By the time the guy is ready to set the bomb off, he has been forced by his wife to look after her brother, who is happy to be on an outing with his friend.  Bored, short for time (the bombing is supposed to happen at a specifically set hour), he gives the box with the bomb in it to his brother-in-law and tells him to hurry up and place it in front of the tower.  The man-boy races off, thrilled to be a part of this adventure.


And here is where defensive laughter–a brutal reality in the life of this story in every sentence on every page–finally descends over the madness.  The brother races forward, trips over a rock, and the bomb blows up in his face, splattering his body parts all over the square.  The tower bongs the hour, unharmed.  The guy looks on and shakes his head, having half expected such an outcome.


I use this example as a reflection of the ultimate randomness of our lives, where the unexpected becomes the inevitable and we all find ourselves with something to mourn.  Usually what we mourn is the impact of everything that happens to our lives.  We can be sad over the death of a loved one and constantly be thinking about them, but the loss is quickly transformed into how this impacts you.  All tragedy, whether you are directly involved or not, transforms itself into a personal belief, into a system we devise to explain all these struggles away and somehow go on with our lives mostly unscathed.


But people seem to be having a harder time doing this.  Misery is oppressive and contagious and every so often we find ourselves drowning in a pit of despair.  It is very difficult to escape from this mythic place, a transformed barren landscape better off in mythological fantasies and biblical terror.  We see, briefly, flickering, the inspirations that inspired ancient times to define an underworld, a place today called ‘Hell.’  And all of us live there sometimes.  For some people Hell is their only address, all throughout every day of their lives (which are usually pretty brief).


I want to end this by suggesting that, while the world is generally a horrible place, and most people seem to earn your everlasting hatred, there can be ways to get around such hopelessness.  They are very difficult and require a great deal of patience and very hard work, something that the terminally depressed usually cannot bring themselves to bother with.  I would love to offer you some hope, to claim that there is a brighter way to the future, but this is not who I am.  I, too, suffer in Bunyan’s ‘Slough of Despond’ (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780802456540&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), and I see only brief moments outside of this bottomless pit.  I understand the nature of sadness because that is what my life, unfortunately, is generally all about.  There is no hope, no God, no faith worth following, and no dreams worthy of being fulfilled.  And I wish there were–that is my hope.  I wish there were something worthwhile that could help me to see anything worth living for.



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