A vast literature on happiness has emerged in recent years that is based on “positive psychology.” Instead of emphasizing neurosis and disorders, psychologists are exploring what leads to human fulfillment. One book is called Authentic Happiness. That is good in its place, but we have little instruction on the wise use of woe. There is no book called Authentic Sadness. Virtuously aligning human feeling with objective fact is no small endeavor, and it takes us far beyond pleasurable sensations. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or out contempt.
If Lewis is right, then some objects and situations merit lament as well. But our affections are too often out of gear. We often weep when we should laugh and laugh when we should weep, or we feel nothing when we should feel something. Decades ago, a pop song confessed, “Sometimes I don’t know how to feel.” We have all felt this confusion. Nevertheless, our affect should follow our intellect in discerning how to respond to a world of groaning in travail and awaiting its final redemption (Romans 8:18-21). We live in between times and “under the sun,” as Ecclesiastes puts it. Accordingly, we are obligated to know what time it is.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).
Sadness has its seasons as does happiness; this is simply because God’s creation has fallen into sin and has yet to reach its culmination in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). Before then, we are still exiles, but living in hope. If we are to be godly stewards of our emotions, we must know the signs of the times, know our present time and know what these times should elicit within us.
Our sadness should be judicious and obedient, not hasty, melodramatic or inane. This is a moral and spiritual matter, not one of mere feelings. Emotions easily err. After the Colorado Rockies baseball team was eliminated from a playoff game some years ago, a Rockies fan reported on television that this loss was like “a death in the family.” That struck me as pathetic, if not daft—a sadness spoiled by a disordered soul. I wonder how her family members responded to this, since the sadness was not rightly related to the event that occasioned it.
Sadness intrudes unbidden in a variety of dark shades. I cannot offer a taxonomy or hierarchy of it here. (Robert Burden did so in 1621 in his Anatomy of Melancholy.) Rather, consider one often-misunderstood form of sorrow—lament. What is it? Frederick Buechner wrote that “vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In that spirit, lament is where our deep sadness meets the world’s deep wounds. And this world has its wounds.