“I hope more of your posts are positive. Is ‘stuff that needs to be said,’ always negative or sad? Life is not a veil of tears and then you die. Just my two cents.”
This comment came in to the blog yesterday, and my knee-jerk response was to inform the author that these posts are not required reading for her; that they are optional endeavors and that she would be well within her rights to steer clear of the writing should she find it depressing or morose or unhelpful.
But after reading her words a few more times, her sentiments became more and more offensive and more and more abrasive to my heart. As someone who has battled severe depression for decades, I recognized them as words I’ve heard hundreds of times before, in more or less carefully couched ways:
“Get over it.”
“Cheer up, life’s too short!”
“Many people have it worse than you do. You should feel lucky.”
The underlying theme of this woman’s comment (whether she intended it or not), is that someone else’s sadness needs to have an expiration date to be acceptable; that there is a saturation point on her compassion for another’s pain, and that I am in danger of reaching it.
This is the kind of message that makes people struggling with deep wounds force them beneath the surface or be incited them to mask them with substances and behaviors that may be as detrimental as the wounds themselves.
Every single day I come across people who feel they’ve exhausted the capacity of a loved one’s caring; who feel as though they must walk their road alone, who believe that they need to sacrifice honesty on the altar of conditional relationship. That isolation is about as crippling as it gets, and it’s a common residence for far too many people.
When terrible tragedies occur because some otherwise normal person has short circuited, everyone immediately, passionately (and sadly temporarily) waves the flag and sounds the alarm that we need to do something about addressing mental illness, yet it is exactly these subtle (or overt) intolerances for others’ sadness that makes this incredibly difficult.
For the hurting person, expressing grief and pain and hopelessness out loud are not necessarily negative exercises. They are not all self-absorption and fuel for further sadness. Often, being allowed to fully feel and openly express the depth of one’s pain (not unlike a good, cleansing cry) is coping and healing and part of a productive move through it all.
When we, through our insensitivity or exasperation or indifference, make sad people feel guilty for that sadness, we compound their condition and we create a chasm between us and them that feels insurmountable. They at best feel accepted, but only selectively so. As long as they can fake the smile or muscle through their interactions with us, they feel safe, but too much honesty for too long, and they realize their time with us is numbered. I know what that feels like.
I don’t know the woman who composed this comment, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t intend her words to be received as coldly, sarcastically and demeaning as I received them—which is exactly the point.
Without knowing someone else’s road or the depth and scope of their difficulties, it’s very dangerous ground to scold or correct them, even in the name of them “staying positive.” Should they be privy to the other’s pain, they too might understand completely.
To those who don’t understand what it’s like to walk through the war zone that is severe depression, who don’t know the daily minefields that others carefully and fearfully tiptoe through: give thanks and diligently practice relentless compassion. It, like any muscle, works better and better as it is stretched beyond its current capacity.
Another person’s sadness does not cease simply because you cease to be able to carry it.
Listen to people until you feel you can’t listen any more, and then dig deeply and listen some more. When someone in crisis (whether you deem it merited or not) shares the contents of their heart with you, treat it as the most sacred of spaces. Realize that what you might see as wallowing in negativity, to the one who is hurting, is actually giving hope.
To those who are experiencing profound, chronic, extended emotional pain in any form right now: It’s OK to feel it. It’s OK to say it; again and again and again.
It is not making things worse and it is not part of the problem, even if it is problematic for others. This isn’t about them.
You don’t need to hurry up and get through what you’re going through, you don’t need to “fake it ’till you make it,” and you don’t owe others a sunny disposition if that isn’t the actual condition of your heart.
Pain when shared can be beautiful and redemptive.
Don’t ever be pressured into being silent with your sadness. That would be the saddest thing of all.
Be greatly encouraged, friends.