Sadness is so easily pathologized. When it pops up unexpectedly or has no obvious reason, it can be quickly explained away as lurking depression or rejected as misplaced emotion. Sadness, however, may also be spiritual. Sadness is a regular, even healthy, part of life and companion of grief. Grief can be all around us in hurt relationships, lost values, declining communities, stress, elusive success, or deep-seated heartache from the past, which haunts our everyday life.
For me, the hard part of deep sadness is not the idea of embracing or exploring it. It’s finding the right environment – meaning the right relationships – to let the grief or sadness unfold with dignity. There’s also the simple challenge of the time it takes.
Sadness and grief are not efficient. They demand their own way and their own time. The path grief takes is not always predictable. Therefore, it often seems easier to repress sadness and push it away. It’s certainly more efficient and rational in the short term. In the long run, however, suppressed sadness can haunt one’s sleep, daily interactions, and consume one’s creativity. This is when the spiritual aspect of sadness and grief makes itself known. Sadness, when it lives inside of us, has a nagging, even irruptive, quality; it seeks not only its way and expression, but the connection it needs to see light of day. Sadness and grief integrate us, and make us human. They remind us of our essential relationality, and seeks the blessings of community. It’s a reminder of our inescapable humanity, and humility.
Lamentations is a book of the Hebrew bible that we usually spend little time with. It’s a five chapter poem of grieving before God over the fate of Israel. Interestingly, in Lamentations, the prophet makes clear that both God and Israel are to blame.
What’s also remarkable about the text is that its writer – attributed as Jeremiah – doesn’t give up on Israel or God in the face of absolute ruin. Rather, God remains his interlocuter, i.e. his audience, in his grief. It is a long song of sadness, laced with dark visions of death and desolation, that instigate complaining and pleading over the absolute loss. Following the covenantal theme of Israel as bride and God as bridegroom, Lamentations laments the broken relationship of God and Israel – and its effects – in personal terms. Here are the last four verses:
19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Lamentations doesn’t end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” Because of that, I find solace and company in the prophet’s words. Sadness is its own spiritual place. It exists to have its way…and show the way.
While we modern folk look for a way out of grief and ways to mitigate the trouble and heartache of sadness, I find comfort in knowing that profound sadness and grief lie at the heart our relationship with God. Sadness and grief reveal our humility and helplessness, and this ultimately is what makes us human. Moreover, they draw us into a spiritual journey of surrender that is best lived in relationship to others. This restores a sense of our common humanity. For the prophets, it was precisely out of such sadness and grief that hope sprang forth for the Kingdom of God. It was out of ruin that they imagined God’s return to human affairs.