Putting Sadness in Its Place

Just stay in this circle, and everything will be fine.

"Okay, we get it, divorce hurts. Now can't you please cheer up for a change?"

That's the message that finally drove me out of the ministry. As I've written more times in this space than I can remember, I never really belonged there in the first place. But I'd invested so much of my self--so much "blood and treasure," to borrow from language about the Iraq War--that I stubbornly refused to leave. Thanks to ministry, at the age of 38, I was now twice divorced, had no close friends, was always teetering on the brink of too much debt, and could only see my children by appointment. At least, I kept telling myself, I was working with people who cared, people who felt called to serve, to lift up the downtrodden, liberate the oppressed, blah de blah de blah.

And then my senior pastor told me people were getting impatient with me for being sad.

That's when I knew it was time to leave, and when this same senior pastor concocted a scheme to ease me out the door by going on disability, I accepted it. The church was free of my grief, and I was free to grieve.

I'd been in this place before. This was, after all, my second divorce. The difference this time was that four and a half years earlier, when the first divorce happened, I was serving a church community that affirmed my sadness, made room for it, helped me in whatever way they could, and when it was time for me to leave, sent me on my way with their blessings. I had plenty of hard work ahead of me in June 1995, but I went at it from a place of strength. In December 1999, I had no place to stand. The one thing I needed to do had been denied me.

Which brings me to sadness.

Last week I saw Pixar's latest masterpiece, Inside Out. It tells the story of what's going on inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who, thanks to her father's work, has to leave the world she loves and make a new life in an alien place where nothing is right. Exacerbating the difficulty for her is her parents' expectation that she keep her grief in a container so she can be a ray of sunlight for them as they struggle with the harsh realities of their own new lives. It's an unfair expectation, and if they were to stop and take a hard look at what they were asking, they'd retract it in a moment. It's never explicitly spelled out, in fact, but children are geniuses when it comes to reading between the lines.

I was never told not to be sad in that last church. I was just told that it was a problem. I think the senior pastor was really just being frank with me. But a lifetime of understanding subtext had taught me that most people have an extremely low tolerance for sadness, especially in their leaders. A minister's job is to cheer people up, not to bring them down. "Physician, heal thyself!"

Inside Out showed me something I'd always understood, always appreciated, but had never been able to verbalize as well as this children's movie did: delete sadness from one's repertoire of emotions, and what remains is walking death. This is a hard lesson for the characters of the film to learn, especially Joy, who runs the show inside Riley's head. Sadness is always bringing people down, poisoning happy memories by touching them with her blue fingers. What Joy has to learn is that everything in life is tinged with sadness. No experience, no place, no friendship is forever. People move on, hobbies are outgrown, neighborhoods change, and children grow up. There's a poignant plea buried toward the end of the closing credits, a dedication "to our kids. Please don't grow up. Ever."

That's a futile plea, and not just with respect to children. The nature of existence is change, constant, endless, unstoppable change. And change hurts.

I moved six times as a child. By the time I arrived in high school, I had left so many relationships behind that I didn't know how to start new ones--and didn't really want to, as I knew I'd just have to say goodbye again in a few years. I didn't permit myself to get very close to people in my high school, even though I could tell there were many here who could be wonderful friends I'd cherish the rest of my life, if I just let myself.

But no. I didn't want to be hurt all over again. So instead, I was just lonely and sad. After graduation, I hardly saw any of those people again.

Then came college, the place where I finally opened myself up to friendships--and on graduation day, was an utter wreck. These were the deepest, most intimate relationships I'd ever had. I worked hard at staying in touch with these people. But within three years, most of them had drifted away, some to marriages, others to philosophies and theologies that were simply incompatible with my own.

Where did that leave me? Sad.

And then I fell in love, and it felt great, better than anything I'd ever known, so good that I wanted to lock it in, and proposed marriage before either of us knew enough about ourselves, or each other, to take such a step with any integrity. We spent the next eight years struggling to find our own happiness in each other, rather than in ourselves. That marriage ended for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that we never figured out how to handle each other's sadness.

It took another failed marriage, the end of a career, a string of relationships, and, ultimately, letting go of my children for me to accept the hard, cold reality that all things change, all things end, and in that acceptance, to embrace the simple truth that sadness is the ground of all being and becoming.

We who teach know this better than most. Every year, we watch our students grow, evolve, transform, until the child who waves to us from the bus on the last day of school is a completely different person from the one who shyly met us for the first time in September. Summer vacation will change them even more, so that when I see them again in two months, I may not recognize some of them.

Meanwhile, I'm struggling to hold onto this golden time of warmth, light, and rest, maximizing time with partner and family, writing more, playing more, exercising more, resting more. There's almost a desperation to it: summer ends. I've got to make the most of it while it's here, and I'll miss it when it's gone.

That poignancy adds weight to all these experiences, however frivolous some of them may be. It also adds depth to even the lightest of memories: yes, that was such a fun time, but it ended, and we can never get it back exactly the way it was.

I felt this yesterday as I went through boxes in the attic of my mother's house, sorting things into three piles: one for my kids to go through, one for Goodwill, and one for the landfill. There is urgency to this task: my mother will be selling the house at the end of the summer (talk about things ending!) and finding a smaller place for herself closer to Portland, so everything that's up there--decades of me putting things in boxes, thinking I'll use it later, get rid of it later, make the hard choices later--has to have a new home. I don't have room for it all, and really, most of it should've been disposed of long ago.

Take the dozen or so boxes that are marked "Sarah." In them are dried-up markers, paint sets, nail polish, glue bottles, craft supplies, most of it utterly unusable after all these years. Getting rid of that stuff is easy. Mixed in with it, though, are bits and pieces of her life as a child and teenager: souvenirs from vacations, summer camp, trips, school, church, and more. I've studiously avoided reading anything she's written, but I've also sorted it all into a couple of boxes for her to go through herself. She may wind up sending most of it to the same place as those dry markers, but that's for her to do. Seeing all these things cut me deep.

I had the same experience going through Sean's things, which had been stored in Mom's basement, two weeks earlier, especially as I came across tokens of his own passions (Star Wars, pirates, the Titanic) and bits and pieces of his few years in Scouting.

And the stuffed animals. Oh, God, the stuffed animals. I'm tearing up now thinking of them.

Please don't grow up. Ever.

But they did. If they hadn't, I'd have much more to grieve. Instead, I am the father of two adults. I'm also the step-father of a college junior I've known since he was a high school freshman and a high school sophomore I've known since she was a fourth grader. The insecurities of young adulthood that had become distant memories to me are now front and center in their lives, and I see them experiencing the same passages I once survived. I want to shield them from these things, but I know there is no way around them. They must learn to fail, to be rejected, to grieve, to embrace the sadness that is essential to human existence. In the words of the Game of Thrones greeting: "Valar Morghulis"--"All people die."

Everything ends, so love every moment while it lasts.


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