Seeking Sorrow - Capacities:
‘without a hint of melancholy, there is no psyche, only a futile impulse toward action or play…’
Sorrow does more than soothe us, or seduce us with myriad pathologies. It also has the potential to extend us – to support our integration or to invite us to develop in tenderness, sensitivity and concern. When we make contact with sadness from this standpoint, it helps us grow, whether that is in transforming a wounded place, or deepening our endurance and capacity to love.
Integration - Reliving in order to Master
Love of Reality
When our drift toward sorrow is strong, it is genuinely hard to discern whether our call toward sorrow is an expression of equanimous maturity or masochistic compulsion. In our discussion of Capacities, two sections - Integration and Completion have elements of enactment alongside elements of growth. (They could equally well live in the shadow sections.
Reliving in order to Master…
Winnicott noted that his patients showed a “compulsive” seeking to master an unknown, unmanageable experience …
For some of us, the unresolved traces of the past lead to recurring encounters with sorrow. We find ourselves repeatedly drawn to occasions of loss, pain or disappointment - scenarios in which the sad, despairing self comes to the fore.
We do not experience this as a choice: it is simply how life seems to unfold for us. Losses loom larger than gains. Gloom and grief seem ubiquitous.
Why does this happen, and how can we ensure it is more than meaningless, upsetting repetition?
Freud termed “the ‘desire to return to an earlier state of things’ the Repetition Compulsion. In the grip of this compulsion, he suggested, we find ourselves reliving the shape of a traumatic event.** Winnicott viewed this through a more hopeful lens: that we are compelled to revisit our worst experiences in order to ‘master’ them. In this sense, such repetitions can be said to have an aim. They are looking for something - a better resolution than before. If we can achieve a happy – or even happier – ending, we begin to repair or integrate what has gone wrong. We ‘tame’ an element of experience that was once an area of distress.
There are thin lines between ‘reliving in order to master’ and pathological re-living in which no mastery or transformation takes place. Thus – even though this can look like masochism, it is different because it seeks healing, not pain for its own sake.
Occasions of sadness, grief and loss attract me. Something in me actively wants them and pursues the potential they appear to hold – potential for the relief or repair of good contact, for responses that will be different from those I knew when I was small: distress with a different ending - bonding, hope. It matters to me that pain is possible to represent. That it may become visible at last, that I may be held or loved, allowed to be.
We know we are in the grip of repetition when hurt takes familiar shapes within us; when our troubles feel both fresh yet already known; when different people or scenarios make us feel bad in similar ways. Our response to these scenarios may also have a repetitive character: we may collapse in hopelessness; we may simmer with rage or bitterness; we may be hysterically grief-stricken; we may long to be saved or understood.
Repetition – if it is only that – leads nowhere. But a familiar difficult scenario experienced differently than in the past has great potential to transform us. When we find an inner strength where we once felt weakness; or we receive a soothing response where we once experienced criticism and rejection, we experience something tangibly better than the original situation of which the repetition is a trace. Such experiences affect us profoundly because they have the power to alter our inner landscape: we learn that we are strong, or that others will not always fail us; we learn there is sometimes a way back from disappointment; that our sadness can lighten and feel easier to bear.
When we allow such variations from the past to register, the rigidity of our inner world begins to soften. Such fresh experiences – when positive - alter the atmosphere in which sadness lives inside us. In time, we come to experience sorrow with less overwhelm, less fatalism, less conviction that we are alone, or unworthy, or forever doomed. We come to see that life does not always stall the same way or defeat us; that parts of ourselves we once believed we would always bear alone have actually been loved or cared for. And this transforms us. This is not about ‘mastery’ in the sense of ‘getting what we want’, but about re-encountering things that once felt intolerable, and enduring them in fresh, life-giving ways.
'That is perhaps what we seek throughout life,
that and nothing more, the greatest possible sorrow
so as to become fully ourselves before dying...’
In some of us this longing for ‘mastery’ takes the form of an impulse toward completion. We feel drawn toward our deepest grief, with an instinct to meet it wholeheartedly. Such a longing to incorporate our sorrow may call us deeply; we are drawn toward pain as if we are digging for treasure. We will leave no stone unturned; no wound untended. We want to catch each strand of grief or hurt and realize its potential for release or integration.
This is a questionable impulse: At its worst it is merely masochistic; a hankering after grief as a route to a satisfaction which will always elude us. Undoubtedly, there is a shadow to such an orientation. We may be reifying grief above all other states, drawn to incorporate pain in a way we are never drawn to embrace peace, curiosity or joy.
But there is also a healthy side to this longing, which is fuelled by an instinct for depth and wholeness. For those of us who experience the inner life as a rich and necessary journey, all this has the feel of vocation: a pathway of integration which will never end, yet which transforms us.
Love of Reality
‘Accepting things as they are is a loss.’
Sometimes we are mature enough to love things simply because they are there. Sadness and loss are part of how things are. To reject them or flinch from them is to turn from life, and in doing so, to diminish ourselves. Our integrity seeks more than this. And so we learn to move against this impulse, to live more openly in processes of loss, bereavement, disappointment and defeat.
Kwong calls this capacity ‘active participation in loss’ – the capacity to lean into what is hard with a full, wholehearted engagement. It is a learning with enormous benefits. Sadness – lived well – ripens us, because it deepens our sensitivity, humility, and tenderness. (I explore this theme in much more detail elsewhere, in relation to Leonard Cohen's work)
Kwong coined a beautiful phrase: ‘active participation in loss’. This is an encouragement to lean into processes of grief and impermanence with our full, wholehearted engagement. We do not need to allowour impulse to avoid pain to distract us from engaging with endings and losses. We are inclined, even subtly, to defend and to avoid. Kwong encourages an open, defenceless engagement which helps draw us into contact with this unfolding flow of change and loss, expanding our capacity to be with hard things.
In this sense, valuing of other things – depth, healing, truth – may call us toward sorrow. We then find that we move toward sadness not out of hunger or compulsion, but as an element of reality. Sorrow is loved as ‘one thing among many’, part of the ‘ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows’ which make up our lives. We allow it to touch us and do not shrink from it at all. Nor do we revere it above all other states.
‘the gloom of the world is but a shadow, behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy.
Sadness has had enormous momentum within our psyches. It has held so many associations: old loyalties, malignant identifications, sensual pleasures, promises of depth and transformation. In this discussion, I have looked at the impulse to ‘seek sorrow’ – the instincts and longings which bind us to it. We may be – like Lowell – primed to lean toward sadness, to resonate with it on multiple levels, to see it reflected everywhere, and to pursue the promises it holds.
As we have seen, sorrow calls us this powerfully for good reasons. It has offered us moments of respite, bonds of tender intimacy, resonance with our own depths of tenderness, and opportunities for growth, healing and repair. But we have lost too many hours and days of our lives to states of gloom. Are we willing to ask ourselves personally where we seek sorrow – and why; which of these leanings are alive in us; which may have run their course; which obstruct our development and which still carry richness and meaning? This is important territory for each of us to consider. It is our task to discern how we attach to sorrow, where this is pathological, and where it is beautiful.
If we can acknowledge that this is a relationship we are deeply embedded in, we make way for movement and change.. We lose our innocence: We can no longer complain about sorrow’s presence as if it has nothing to do with us. Instead, we develop a more mature, nuanced appreciation of all that is at play in this theme for us.
It is as if the tide changes: we give sadness ample room to express itself, and when it has thoroughly done so, we are still here. Clearer, fresher, ready for something else: joy, curiosity, the less-tainted, open world.
At its best, contact with sorrow offers a rich seasoning of the soul – a route to enhance our capacity for love and meaning. At its’ worst, as we well know, it has the capacity to stagnate our vitality in moody gloom. The more fully we understand our allegiance with it, the more attention we free up for fresh experience, untainted by the profound momentum toward sadness which has coloured our lives. This lightens us. It is as if the tide changes: we give sadness ample room to express itself, and when it has thoroughly done so, we are still here. Clearer, fresher, ready for something else: joy, curiosity, the less-tainted, open world.