Meet throbbing sadness with giant grace
If you’re a sensitive soul, you probably you know it—the immense sadness that wakes up with you in the morning some days, some weeks. It holds at your throat and squeezes like a mad assailant who both wants an answer now and also wants desperately to prevent you from giving one. I’ve struggled with that kind of brutal sadness on and off for years.
It’s salty, thick, throbbing and vicious.
What’s at the root of the awful feeling? A sense of loss—not a loss of a particular person or thing, but a loss of hope, a loss of trust that the world we’re in is a good place to be.
The sense of loss grows when I go through my memory and I seem to come up with a wealth of incidents in which people I adored left me, burnt me, insulted me. I get a desolate sense that I’ve somehow been wrecked by the brutality of others, a brutality that I couldn’t predict and couldn’t defend myself against.
These memories can feel like a pile of irrefutable, immense evidence that life is cruel and that other people are hard, shallow and mean. Under the weight of such evidence, my own heart starts to close down. My resentment calcifies around me like an impenetrable shell.
In this closed state, I have nothing to give. I’m stingy with my energy, impatient with my life, bored with everything, suspicious of everyone. I’m a whining, self-pitying mess.
Our hearts naturally close when we encounter trauma: betrayal, disappointment, hardship. It’s natural to want to shut down like a fearful mollusk and keep the pink, tender sides of us safe from the onslaught of the world. It’s natural, but it’s not graceful.
Grace is an attitude that counters the brutality of life’s inevitable pain with radically loving openness rather than shutting down.
The problem with heart-closure in response to trauma is that it’s what everyone else is doing too. Other folks all around have walled their hearts behind hard barriers, and it’s from that insulated place that they go ahead and do the very things that end up hurting us.
So if I recoil from pain inflicted on me by hardening my own heart, I’m just perpetuating the problem. The more closed-down and protected I make myself, the less easy it is for me to empathize. I become more likely to behave thoughtlessly, self-righteously, even meanly.
I’ve found that I can’t afford to hold any grudges. The more resentful I am, the more my perception is distorted and the more I’m inclined to feel entitled to violate other people on my way towards getting what I want.
I have a way of dealing with life that many people don’t like to hear me talk about, because it can sound like stupidity and denial. And it would be stupidity and denial, if it weren’t a response that arose out of much thought and much acceptance.
My approach is this:
To the best of my ability, I refrain from judging what happens around me and what other people say. I pay attention to everything with my heart rather than with my mind.
What does that mean?
It means that a person could be going off on a crazy racist rant in front of me, and rather than going up into my head and silently resisting and criticizing everything that they say, I just open myself and listen. I ask my heart to receive the person’s wisdom and their love (even though my brain tells me that the raving racist doesn’t have any of those things to offer).
When I do this, I find that something about my inner non-resistance has an almost magical effect: I’m able to absorb the person’s words without them harming me at all (i.e., they don’t infect me with racism or infect me with hostility towards the person ranting), and I notice that gradually the person speaking begins to soften and lighten.
This practice becomes a lot harder when the person ranting is not just going on about some generally misguided ideas, but when they’re actually insulting me.
Yet I find that when I can stay anchored in my heart while someone else is telling me all about their negative perceptions of me, I often end up feeling more compassion for them than I do righteousness for myself. It begins to be clear to me that they’re feeling a lot of pain and frustration that they don’t know what to do with. I’m able to hear whatever truth there might be in what they’re saying without internalizing their vitriol or getting rude with them in return.
In brief, the only cure I know for big sadness is to increase my willingness and decision to love without judgement: to love the world, love myself, love others. And by “love” I guess I just mean, “enjoy with kindness.”
Editor: Brianna Bemel