• Sarah Ratermann Beahan

State of Bewonderment: Ep. 6

The Wonder of Sadness

There is a thread, as silvery and unobtrusive as a spider’s web, between sadness and wonder. This thread has been subtly making itself known to me in the last months, but this last week the strength of the fiber became indisputable.

Perhaps I should amend the statement to say there can be a thread between the two, if we allow it, if we open to it and allow the strand tether us to something hopeful. It is just as easy, I suppose, to snip the line, to fold in upon oneself. It is tempting to be in the dark cave of unhappiness alone, but there is courage in allowing the wonder to creep in. For those of us with a melancholic bent, it is what allows us to find wholeness and balance in a world bombarding us with heavy, tragic events.

Someone recently said that life seemed to be particularly intense for me these days—between the political climate, my dad’s illness, my pup’s slow debilitation among other things. I chuckled.

“I have to wonder if everyone is feeling the intensity of these last few years, if I feel things more deeply or if I’m just more open about my feelings,” I replied.

I thought back to this time last year, before the dad/dog sadness (though the country still felt like it was going to hell in a handbasket). A colleague commented that my online content—my workshops, newsletters, blog posts and social media—were quite personal and vulnerable. Which leads me to believe that perhaps I am more open than the average bird. I am intentional about what I share, and what I hold back, but I am purposeful in posting a range of human experience. I challenge myself to share my belly-flops as often as I share my triumphs. I hope that by being open about the wide range of human emotions I experience—sometimes on a daily basis—I give someone else permission to feel them and show them, too.

I wish people were more open about how they feel about their lives, even if only once in a while. And when I say feel, I mean the whole spectrum—their joys, sorrows, pain, excitement, boredom, and anger. What would our world look like if being angry once in a while were normalized? Perhaps we’d have less pent-up rage that explodes in dysfunctional and damaging ways. What if we were able to show our sorrow without couching it with a silver lining? Then the sadness would begin to move through us, instead of getting stuck, deep down, only to erupt at inopportune moments. What if we shared what makes us nervous: the times when our hands shake before we speak, and the times when the weight of it makes it hard to get a deep breath?

Does anyone else ever get sick of seeing the posts about momma and daddy’s little angels on Facebook? Or the “I love my ride or die sooooo much” pictures on Instagram? If I have to read one more person who is “thrilled to announce” something on LinkedIn I’m going to vomit.

Where are the “today my dinosaur of a supervisor triple checked my timesheet despite the fact that I’ve never been late in the 10 years I’ve worked here” posts? Or the pics of your snoring, mouth-breathing spouse hogging the bed after they ate the last ice cream bar and didn’t express the slightest amount of remorse? I know some of you want to spike your adorably chatty three-year-old’s juice with Benadryl so they will shut the hell up more than half the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if other parents knew they weren’t alone in having the occasional less than idyllic thought?

I just returned from a funeral in Florida. One of my oldest friends from childhood lost his mother in a tragic accident—her passing was sudden and horrific. When we learned of her death, there was no question that our circle of friends would descend on their home in the retirement community known as The Villages (iykyk) to be together. Cry we did; I could barely look at my buddy without tears springing to my eyes. But we laughed more. We laughed at each other, we laughed with his family, we laughed at old stories and new ones. We laughed when there wasn’t much to laugh about.

It filled my soul up in a way that I almost felt guilty about—because funerals are supposed to be somber events, right? And yet, most of the funerals I’ve been to in my life have been as joyous as they have been sorrowful. I like to think that’s the way most of those who pass on would prefer it. Who wants their loved ones to push away their joy and laughter?

I was struck, though, by intensity of our reconnection. This isn’t the first parent of our group to pass on, and we’d shown up in this way before. I wondered if the intensity of the last several years, the raggedness even the toughest of us feel, found a place to release in this moment, our first time together in the new now. We could open up our hearts and let ourselves be sad, together, rallying around our loved ones.

When I got home, I plucked the next book off my stack of unread titles on my bedside table: Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make us Whole by Susan Cain. I heard her interviewed on a podcast a few months ago, and was intrigued. Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking changed my worldview and view of myself ten years ago, so I promptly scooped up a copy of the new book.

It was in the first ten pages that Cain articulates the relationship between sorrow and joy, curiosity and melancholy. She shares a Buddhist idea, clarified by mythologist Joseph Campbell “that we should strive to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” Why? Because the willingness to submit to both the light and the dark in life, often simultaneously, is to begin a path of transcendence. In fact, recent research tells us that to achieve “self-transcendence”, or the overcoming the limits of the individual self through a spiritual practice, “increases in times of transition, endings and death.”

Even more wonderous, to my view, is the neurological research that supports the idea that sadness, and it’s cousin, compassion, is the bridge that forges bonds between humans, more than any other emotion. Cain writes, “If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it—rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage—as the bridge we need to connect with each other. We could remember that no matter how distasteful we might find someone’ opinions, no matter how radiant, or fierce someone may appear, they have suffered, or they will.”

Of course. The pieces began to click into place. Individually, we often experience a transcendence, a spiritual moment when faced with major transition (um, hello, pandemic). This transcendence has the ability to help us rise above ourselves to something greater, hence the spiritual connection piece. Moreover, vulnerability creates stronger bonds and what is more vulnerable and sorrowful than suddenly losing a loved one? I could see the components of what made the weekend so deeply connecting.

I think the willingness to see sadness, to engage in compassion is rooted in our innate curiosity.

Let me back up. Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn, meaning we wish to acquire knowledge, meaning we don’t already have the answer. To be curious requires us to admit we don’t know something. It asks us to be both vulnerable (in the not-knowing) and non-judging (in the openness to learn).

I think we are often trained out of that curious nature. To admit we don’t know may require us to ask for help, information, assistance. Somewhere we’re taught that to ask for help admits weakness, which in this case seems absurd, because gaining knowledge (aka being curious) seems likely to only make us stronger. But when we invite someone to teach us, we build a bridge.

There isn’t a lot of bonding involved in knowing it all. In fact, it might be more isolating, depending on how you wield the knowledge. The willingness to not know, to ask, and to extend a hand is what relationships are built upon.

Just the act of being curious during a time of sorrow can allow us to connect. When we come from a place of “I wonder…” instead of “I know…” we are open to listening, learning, bridging rather than knowing, judging or asserting our own experience.

See if this sounds familiar. A friend comes to you to vent or cry about a recent break-up, or losing their job. Your immediate response is probably “That’s terrible. What can I do?” How often has that friend responded “nothing. I just need you to listen.” And yet, we all want to solve, fix, and advise. We forget that in most cases, the most helpful act is to simply be with our friends when they are in pain. To witness their sorrow and hurt without trying to fix it (or them); because to fix implies that the pain equates brokenness, and that isn’t true.

The hardest thingthat we will ever do is to simply be with our loves when they are in pain, when we recognize we cannot do or fix anything.

There is this moment that has rattled around in my brain since the trip to The Villages to memorialize my friend’s mother. It happened hours after the memorial service as we congregated at the family home. We were grazing on cold-cuts and fried chicken with the rest of the family and friends. Most people were beginning to go home. I was talking with Mr. L, my friend’s dad. He was telling me about the sudden and unexplained hearing loss he suffered years prior, how his wife without question or complaint, altered their lifestyle in small but consequential ways to compensate. In the background, someone with more authority than I asked that we start boxing up food. I watched over Mr. L’s shoulder as Ashley, another of our circle of compatriots, set to work. Mr. L, likely because his back was turned and he can’t hear well, didn’t notice. But when he did, he exited our conversation abruptly, turning on Ashley with the wry smile we all knew so well.

“You all are taking Jason out for the evening, aren’t you?” He asked. There was a chorus of affirmatives; there were plans for margaritas and karaoke.

“Now, Ashley,” he said. “If you keep this up, you are going to leave me with nothing to do this evening. I’ll be here, with a clean kitchen, and too much time to think. Is that what you want?”

She met his eyes, put the washcloth down, her eyes brimming with tears. She didn’t say a word, and he just grinned at her.

She knew that he knew she was just trying to help. He knew that she knew that he was teasing her. But they also both knew that there was a kernel of truth to his request. We were there to take care of his son, his son who had taken care of him all week. And he wanted us to, was moved that we’d come all this way to do just that, I think. He would bravely face a quiet house for a few hours, after days of cacophony, and it would be better if he had a messy kitchen to put in order.

What passed between them in a few moments was an understanding, a compassion that didn’t need a lot of words. It needed an ironic smile, and a tearful expression to fill its purpose. I watched quietly with tears in my own eyes at the poignancy of the moment.

The thing is, we will all experience grief. We will have our hearts broken, we will fail, and we will suffer the loss of our loves. It is unavoidable, no matter how many medical advancements humans manage to create. And each grief will be both similar and so very, very unique, and so there is no substitute for the witnessing. Because we will all be there, when we can be open and curious, we are able to create the bond of sadness that Cain asserts. When we witness, as Ashley did, instead of talking or doing, we create deep, healing connection.

I think many of us will do anything in our power to avoid looking sorrow in the eye. We do our best to outsmart grief, to hide it or from it. We are all on an endless quest to win a battle we know is fruitless. The idea that our suffering is derived from our ultimate undoing underscores centuries of art, literature, philosophy and science. Our whole medical system is predicated on battling death—a battle that we are ultimately always destined to lose. We will all meet our mortal end one day, and yet we do everything in our power to push that day back. In fact, we do a helluva lot of things to make ourselves appear to be further from that day than we are—walk into any cosmetics aisle at the pharmacy and you’ll be confronted with our desire to drink from the fountain of youth.

I am no different. I prefer joy to sorrow, laughter to tears. I like fun more than boredom, I am human, after all. But I am also aware of how the troughs that we are forced to navigate are often the most beautiful, joyful and connected times even in amidst the challenge. I think, then, that the intensity of the last few years may have opened me up rather than shutting me down. I am becoming more willing to sit in the wonder of the joy and pain that often occur at the same time. I am learning that feeling the range of emotions won’t devastate me, in fact, they will only allow me to see myself and the world in more vibrant shades.

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