Seeking Sorrow: Comforts
There are heart-warming reasons for seeking sorrow. Sometimes being sad just feels good – soothing, calming, soft. At others, it gets us things we want: closeness, love. Sadness does offer things that we genuinely yearn for.
- Can we identify the ways in which sorrow happily calls us – as a source of richness or goodness, closeness or relief, meaning or depth?
- Can we begin to see that this hated ‘thing’ is not wholly bad, that there are aspects of it we treasure?
- Can we deepen our understanding of why we are called so strongly toward sadness in search of these things?
Bonding: Sorrow as a route to intimacy, care and belonging…
“Grief and sadness knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger than common joys...”
Alphonse de Lamartine
Shared sadness forges bonds: in certain company anyway. For some of us, this is one of its core attractions: it brings us closer to one another. Sorrow joins us with others in two ways: the sense of solidarity we feel with others like us, and the more intimate experience of deeply sharing sadness and being tended to with love. Both are extremely precious and relieving: they may reach into our deepest hurts and alleviate a lifelong loneliness.
‘Dostoyevsky…preferred the company
of those who were prone to sorrow…’
Julia Kristeva - Black Sun
There is almost an underground tribe of the afflicted: We recognize one another; we sense each others’ wayward gloom and find it comforting. We are grateful to others who convey their bond with sadness, and sense them out, even if our pain remains unspoken. We warm each other up with rueful glances. Among these kin we feel less alone, less flawed, less failing. This reflection of one another matters greatly, because it helps to heal the isolation, shame or dismay so many of us associate with feeling sad.
There is also a more intimate way in which we share sorrow: as the quest to lean on one another in states of distress. This is a primitive human instinct: to hunger to be comforted, for a place to let go and be held. At its best, as adults, we experience this as a temporary and beautiful experience of intimacy and care, of receiving something infinitely treasured, which sweetens us. At its worst, it can be far more troublesome –emerging as a form of enactment, a repeating drama in which we seem to cultivate distress in order to demand rescue or care. So often, it is somewhere in between.
We may long be known (and embraced) in places of sadness. We may carry a hunger to share sadness openly, without apology or shame. As children, we could rarely articulate the sorrow or despair we sensed within. If so, we may deeply treasure being comforted in states of grief. Simple, plaintive, almost pre-verbal hopes seem to lie behind this reaching for an other: ‘Know me here; don’t turn away’; ‘Share your sadness with me also, so I am not alone …’; ‘Please, just hold me; don’t go, don’t ever go…’ And when we are met with patience, tenderness, kindness, something redemptive happens: psychic relief, cellular happiness, a sense of being blessed. The once rejected self is revived, brought back to life.
When we bring our sadness to others (if we do), we do so from a place of hope: We wish for a certain response: for someone to hold us or soothe us, to be strong for us, to let us be small for awhile. In reaching, we shed the responsibilities of adulthood; we lay down our burdens.
Sharing sorrow has the capacity to bond us – to gain comfort, intimacy, tenderness. Can we understand how this warmer pull of sadness, speaks to us - to our unique histories and associations between closeness, care and grief:
- We may have been stoic and self-reliant, desperate or lonely?
- We may have longed for comfort that did not come
- We may have been wonderfully comforted, and long to return to the soothing bliss of early love.
a Loyalty to our Younger Self:
“always inside me is the child who died,
always inside me is his will to die…”
‘Always inside me is the child who died…’ wrote Robert Lowell, ‘...always inside me is his will to die.’ The word that matters here is always. Those of us who carry strong memories of sadness when young are often stubbornly loyal to our early grief. Like Lowell, our emotional attention is continually drawn back toward the sad child we once were: We are tenderly protective, and have forged an allegiance with sadness on his behalf. We wish to align with the child who once had no-one, to feel his sorrow ‘with’ him, in response to his isolation, loneliness and pain. It seems that were we to leave sadness behind, we would betray him. We will not leave him. We have vowed to be with him always.
Nobody makes a vow like this without deep suffering. So this commitment is forged from a place of pain, and from an instinct to protect and to love. Nevertheless, if we carry it forward undigested, it comes at a cost: it bonds us deeply to sorrow as the ground to which we must always return. Something in us cannot let it recede. Many of us – like Lowell - carry this all of our lives: an unmistakable leaning toward sorrow based on an identification with childhood despair. We feel defined by our early pain; and destined to carry it always.
This is delicate: our pull toward sorrow is both an expression of love and a loyalty which, if held too fiercely, can sabotage our development and happiness. We must find a way to tend to our own childhood sadness without clinging, and to carry our sad self well, without allowing its mood to colour everything. For if our alignment with sorrow becomes too dominant, we continual binding ourselves to an identitity founded in gloom. We are more than this – far more – but the child’s sadness weighs so heavily, we cannot always see it.
This creates a subtle challenge for our adult selves: to meet our sadness, but refuse to be colonized by it. We are right that our sad child needs our tenderness, but he also needs our authority and our strength. Because we need, with sensitivity, to introduce him to all that his pain obscured for him: the other side of childhood, curiosity, happiness, playful joy. This is our job also – to seek out these spaces and help him find a home there.
The Sensuality of Sorrow
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.
I was better after I had cried, than before--more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
There is physiological pleasure in certain states of sorrow: in the release of tears, or the low, slumping rest that comes with true acceptance. Not all sadness feels good, but some does: there is a relaxation in our inner atmosphere: ‘In true and honored sadness,’ writes Karla McClaren, ‘there is certainly loss, but it’s always followed by an amazing sense of quiet and utter relaxation…’
Sadness is physically pleasurable when we allow it to bring us down into ourselves. When resistance, fear and tension fade, anxiety dissipates and gives way to release: tears, sighing, deeper breaths. When we surrender, we receive all this directly as a purifying force. We have yielded to and taken in our grief. The world falls quiet. Few physical states are as calm. This atmospheric peace which follows grief means that we sometimes seek our tears as we might seek the ‘breaking’ of the weather: we have sensed tension accumulate: we have battled with mounting distress, anxiety, or despair. When resistance ends and we give ourselves over to distress, mood moves naturally to dispel itself.
Recalling ourselves to our bodies, entering into our sadness, finding ways to open to it, whether by being held, or simply stopping and surrendering to all we feel – all this can soothe us. Sorrow, then, at this physical level, can be a nourishing thing, a place of replenishment and release.
These are some of the ways that sorrow calls us: as a route to bonding and belonging, a loyalty and tenderness for our childhood suffering, a place of sensual rest or release. Each of these are, inherently ‘good’, though of course, may contain elements of compulsion or enactment. But where we feel an intense attraction to sorrow as a space of comfort, this may reflect a deprivation, a wound, a prior shoring up of pain. If we can find safe places for our sorrow to emerge and breathe, this can be a healing, soothing thing, softening us rather than burdening us with further grief.