Seeking Sorrow - Shadows

I'm posting this excerpt in the aftermath of a 'Between Defeat and Destiny' workshop. Something of our dialogue together reminded me of the depths of our bonds with sorrow. This piece illuminates some of the heavier elements. For all the challenges of such a leaning, there are riches too. (More uplifting elements, on the Comforts, and Gifts of Sadness, are offered on other pages, for those who are drawn.) 


Sorrow can stake claims on us in problematic ways: Over time, in trying to withstand pain, our character may come to shape itself around the contours of sadness – to ward it off, to justify its presence, to protect us from further hurt.

This is the darker and sometimes damaging side of our complicity with sorrow; the elements of

  • masochism

  • martyrdom victimhood

  • indulgence and inertia

which congeal around it and lurk within us.  


These are the more malignant, recalcitrant styles of avoidance and defense which tend to keep us at one remove from actually feeling sad, yet deeply embed unhappiness. They are ways we have unwittingly shaped ourselvesin order to endure suffering we have found no better way to manage. It is painful – maybe shameful - to see fragments of these within us. We may take them to be signs of failure. They are not. 

They are symptomatic of our pain

and unresolved distress;

they are not our essence.

These shadows are strong, archetypal forces; distorted ways humans have unconsciously dealt with pressures which seem beyond us. They have their reasons for being there, not all of which began with us. These are not ways of being any of us would have chosen. We wake up to them – reluctantly – inside us. As we get older, these patterns may solidify, as a way to manage what went wrong for us. They are symptomatic of our pain and unresolved distress; they are not our essence. And we also need to remember that these are only ever elements in our character, and never the whole picture. Our capacity and willingness to perceive elements of any of them is a sign of maturity and strength: it should give us hope rather than cause despair.


Acknowledging these tendencies immediately begins to loosen their grip.  They become less seductive, less insidious, and less potent. If we have been embedded in their perspective, we may now start to think beyond them. We recognize the dysfunction they carry, and are less enthralled. We find other ways to meet the pain they are a reaction to. In time this will dissipate their power. However unpalatable, identifying strands of any of these tendencies in us, is mature and freeing. 


Malignant Martyrdom: the pull of Isolation and Retreat


‘...she savours the bitter sweetness of being forsaken by so many absent ones. …How long can this last, this delightful, smug imprisonment by the sadness of being alone…?’’

Julia Kristeva - Black Sun


One version of this adaptation is a form of martyrdom.

We feel we stand alone, believing we have been failed by life itself. We seduce ourselves with images of our unlucky fate. We take solace in our righteous disappointment, becoming - in Kristeva’s words, ‘inaccessible citizen[s] of the magnificent land of death…of which no one could ever deprive us...’  It is quiet. No one comes to disturb us.  

All of us have some affinity with this wish to withdraw from life. At its most benign, the inclination to retire beyond reach of hope or harm is entirely natural. There is something healthy and animalistic in turning away in order to repair: the wounded self at rest, rejuvenating, alone, ‘needing no-one’. And then we come back: back to life and to others.

By not being willing to hope for anything from anyone, we are protected from exposure to fresh hurt

But not all of us do. And this is where the danger lies. Some of us have lost too much hope, are more attracted to the identity of being thoroughly forsaken. This offers shelter: the security of no longer being responsible for altering our fate, which is already lost. If we have been too disappointed, if too many things have failed us, there is certainly some safety in giving up. Withdrawal promises to protect us: to gain us distance, a position of vain superiority in a world inadequate to fulfil our longings; it bears witness to our great disappointment, and expresses a stance vis a vis others which inflates us and finds them lacking. By not being willing to hope for anything from anyone, we are protected from exposure to fresh hurt or disappointment. We enjoy a peculiar calm; we make of ourselves a haven and cannot - will not - be reached again. We are no longer available to be affected at all.


If this is our way, we may not experience sorrow itself directly; we will simply inhabit its’ aftermath, through this dismissive, depressive style. We will live from a place of defenase, as guarded selves who cannot bear to acknowledge need or pain.  Fragments of this style lurk within many of us, and may have a profound grip on us, especially if we have never found sufficient comfort for our pain. We withdraw from meaningful engagement with others, having cast aside what we may once have hoped for; already let-down, we conclude that others are unable or unwilling to alleviate or withstand our distress.  Out of touch with our pain, we feel a vain superiority toward a world we believe unworthy of us.


If some form of martyrdom has become our style, we do not seek sadness as such. Instead we could say that we veil our despair, and defend against the disappointment and sadness that lies behind this withdrawal.  Such is our blend of pride and disillusionment, that to admit to despair or need would humiliate us, yet gain us nothing. Distance is all that is left, and the apparent dignity of solitude.


This is a sad and painful way to live. But it is also insidious and powerful, seeping silently into our bones and infiltrating our bonds with others as the years pass. The identity of having been deeply, fatally failed is hard to move on from, because it is a haven, and because like all positions, it captures something true. If we sense it’s shape within us, what can we do? Can we meet our disappointment more directly; can we see that we have not been specially selected to suffer; can we see that our isolation has become a stagnant, arid place; can we see that there are other ways to work with disappointment and hurt; can we start to find some solace in the realm of other humans – even if indirectly in a book, or piece of music; can we let the good of that trickle in and coax us back, at a safe pace, to life among the living?



a leaning toward pain


‘I have a penchant for destruction, a taste for wounds. I’m pulled to hurt spots. What hurts is hot for me.

There is a gravitational pull toward injury. The black hole suits me well…And in this most desolate landscape, illimitable joy…’

Michael Eigen, Emotional Storm


We tend to presume – of ourselves and others – that happiness is where we are headed. Some of us are, to some degree, pretending.  Somewhere inside us, we know we are attracted to pain. We wean a peculiar pleasure from it, even if we don’t know quite how or why. We seem to thrive amid tragedy and wreckage. Those of us who lean this way did not choose it. Nonetheless, if we are honest, we cannot help but noticing this a trait we find within us - something leans toward landscapes of pain, seems to prefer them.


For us there can be pleasure in despair – plenty of it. Why this is so is not always clear to us, but something about distress attracts us.  We may feel an affinity with the depths sorrow plunges us into, the journeys it takes us on, the intensities it yields. Sorrow promises the kind of suffering that draws us into an intensity of contact in which we feel real, or into a sense of self that we take to be our essence. It touches our very core. It makes us feel known.

I don’t really feel I know someone or am known until we have shared distress together and found each other adequate to it. There is a part of me – one who is perhaps enacting an ancient childhood state, which asks, what are other people for, if not this dance of comforter and comforted?  Sadness offers fuel for such a dance. If sadness haunts us, the alternative can also seem monstrous, unlikely or unattainable. If offered a life without sadness, I am not sure I would take it. I sense I would fear the losses.

Pain draws us in because it is familiar; it feels like part of our substance. In an odd sense, we feel almost skilled at it. By contrast, simple happiness discomforts us. It seems a lesser thing: less profound, less engaging. It is not our country. History tells us we do not really belong here, and if we try, we fear losing our our depths and texture to a banal normality we have no feel for.

Indulgence and Inertia:

the allure of paralysis


“I plunged all at once into dark, underground, loathsome vice of the pettiest kind…there was nothing in my surroundings which I could respect and which attracted me. I was overwhelmed with depression, too; I had an hysterical craving for incongruity and for contrast, and so I took to vice….”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground


Sometimes despair takes possession of us – states of hopelessness, anguish, wretchedness, and we almost embrace the world they open up for us. Then we may use their presence to be recklessly indulgent, or to avoid things that might test or strain us. Sometimes, this truly is all we can muster: We feel alienated, defeated and possessed. What may look from like willful self-indulgence: may, from the inside be a dreadful, blunted hell. 


How bleak must our inner horizons be, when such states become the best we can hope for – when we long for obliteration or fester in stagnant hopelessness. We are possessed by some difficulty we cannot overcome, calcified by disappointment or weakness we cannot bear. Despite such horror, some element of this dimension may also come to suit us. The 'dark underground' becomes a second skin. Surrendering into despair offers us a route to lying low, to trying less, to decadence, being left alone.


Has malignant gloom become a kind of limbo, a holding bay, a way of being that in some ways ‘works’ for us, even while it depletes us?  Only we can know if we are prone to ‘using’ sadness for avoidance or for gain: We may wish to avoid responsibility, commitment, work, or the expectations of others; we may wish to gain attention, affection, nurturance and support.

An unchangeable colour rules over the melancholic: his dwelling is a space the colour of mourning. Nothing happens in it. No one intrudes. It is a bare stage where the inert I is assisted by the I suffering from that inertia. The latter wishes to free the former, but all efforts fail…”

Alejandra Pizarnik


In inertia, there is a core loss of faith in self; loss of will to alter our fate, loss of strength; loss of any impulse or instinct that living richly may lie within our power. This is the drift toward gloom as a resting place; not in martyrdom, masochism or pride, but in simply sensing the futility of effort. We become the one who cannot function; we find refuge in our incapacity and bewildered hopelessness. Perhaps someone will come to care for us here. Perhaps not. 


Each of these portraits – martyrdom, masochism, inertia – are represented simplistically here. No brief discussion can do justice to their complexity, nor to the original distresses and forces which underlie them. What is important in this context is that we recognise anything familiar which can shed light on how we shape our lives around pain.   If we feel flickers of recognition here and there, acknowledging them may help us.


It is hard to live with our orientation toward martyrdom, masochism, or inertia. To the extent that we do - we have come to do so unwittingly, hoping to defend ourselves from the hurts and disappointments which have helped to form us. And none of this is clear or chosen: In territory like this, even we are half-strangers to ourselves: bewildered, defeated, mustering through as best we can. Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves, at others we are flooded with shame or despair at the distortions we find within us.


But, perceiving such tendencies should not be grim. In fact it is brave and hopeful – demonstrating a maturity and clarity which serves our growth. Recognising how such elements live in us lessens their force: in seeing them, we are already seeing beyond them, If we can find ways to acknowledge them without shame or self-attack, we start to grow beyond them. Defences and delusions alter slowly, and with accompanying pain. But with blessings also: there is a cleaner, clearer self waiting for us, a less obscured consciousness, which becomes freer to take in life through thinner veils. So our courage matters here, and serves us deeply.



 I explore the attractions of sorrow further in two other categories Comforts, and Capacities...