Essential Sadness, Essential Joy

I remember a phrase from my twenties that went something like “Into every life some rain will fall.” There was also a song lyric that included the phrase “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game.” While I don’t like dwelling on tears and rain, I’ve also come to believe that they are essential to becoming healed and whole.


Our Essential Sadness

In fact I’ve thought about this a lot lately because I’ve encountered or maybe just named what I think is the essential sadness of my life. What I mean by that is that each of us has a fact of our life or a string of events or a personal characteristic that has caused us prolonged grief even if we are not conscious of it. I use the word essential in two ways. One way of using it means that sadness is necessary to be there and necessary for us to feel it in order to be whole, and the other is that it is essential or part of the core of who we are.


For example, I think there are a lot of people who, because of something that has happened to their kids, think they were not good parents. This thought lingers and saddens or even haunts them. Others have an essential sadness around persistent addictions that have gone unchecked. Many people feel as if they never found the job that allowed them to use their best gifts or even show their competence. Some people feel as if they have never really mattered to one special person because they are somehow flawed. Still others experience loss after loss after loss and wonder why this seems to be their lot in life. A long and primary relationship with illness is the essential sadness for some. Whatever it is, it carries strong emotional baggage even if we are not fully conscious of it.


My essential sadness is that I feel that the four most important men in my life, the ones that really mattered, didn’t love me because I was unlovable and unworthy. Even though there were complicating factors like two of them having drinking problems and thus having a difficult time loving, I still felt that I was somehow at fault. Sounds harsh but underneath it feels true. I have come to feel secure in God’s love and in the love of my dear friends, especially my close male friends, but there is still this lingering sadness in my heart.


What is miraculous about our essential sadness is that it can ease or even become a gift to us if we are open to the healing process and invite God into the pain. We can even see surprising and unexpected openings for healing. Some examples: you are at a wedding and an older relative says, in passing, that your kids turned out really well, just like you; you get an unexpected award for your volunteer service and realize that you have always loved volunteer work more than your paid work; you find a photo with an inscription on the back that changes a perception of someone else or of yourself; a family member tells you causally that you were really there for them when it mattered most; someone commends you for your courage in facing something and says you are their role model. If you attend to these off-hand comments and take them in, they can shift your story line and help to transform your essential sadness.


My story line shifted recently when I found a 35-year-old letter in a garbage bag filled with papers I was planning to shred. How it got there is beyond my recollection but there it was, a letter from my first husband the year that we were getting divorced. I don’t ever remember reading this letter at the time, although I’m sure I did. But what I noticed this time through was that it was clear that he still loved me but that our marriage was ending for other reasons. After 35 years of carrying around the idea that I was unlovable something shifted deep inside me and I felt a small opening for some healing of that essential sadness.


God intervened and spoke to me in this healing process helping me face my sense of unworthiness. God said that I don’t have to be or feel worthy of his love, I just need to be willing to receive God’s and other people’s love. And, as usually happens to me when God is involved, I just happen to be working on a set of icons of Biblical women, many of whom have very difficult, even treacherous relationships with men who deem them unworthy. So my story mixes nicely with their stories. Miraculously all of these women’s stories were somehow redeemed and they became prime stories in the Bible. You may remember a few of them; Bathsheba, Sarah, Rahab, Tamar, Naomi, Hannah.


John O’Donahue writes in his book, Beauty, about how our flaws can become beautiful. We can live into that breathtaking place within us where we can see the gift of not having it all together. He says, “In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other…Where woundedness can be refined into beauty a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one’s own woundedness.”


Our Essential Joy

There is another story that runs through each of our lives, that of our essential joy. Each person has a different experience of joy but for each of us it is like a thread that we can usually trace as far back as we can remember. For some people it is a quality they exhibit, for others it is relationships with other people. For some it is the ability to take risks or solve problems, for others it is creativity. Remembering what it is and noticing it can make a big difference in our lives.


I know a person whose sense of humor has been a consistent source of pain relief and balance. It is natural and not contrived—and brings him a calmer perspective on most situations. Another person told me that she has an uncanny way of finding mothers and mentors to teach her, love her, and watch out for her. One man has stayed close to nature all his life using it as his life-line, his God-place, his restoration. Another woman makes a nest of every place she has ever lived, no matter how small or bare or unstable. Having a nest makes coming home seem more delectable.


As I traced back in my life to find my essential joy or life-line, it has been two-fold (and frequently these two were combined); writing and my relationship with God. I have not always experienced smooth sailing with either of these two but the journey, even with the struggles, has been my essential joy.  I grappled with very difficult theological and emotional questions in my twenties and thirties, made large career changes in my forties, and had consistent social justice challenges and marriage issues along the way. Not only was God present but God invited me to take my experiences one step further. As a result, most of my published writing emerged out of my questions and struggles and pondering.


Now I am hearing God ask me to let his love permeate me deeply even in this place of feeling unlovable. And I hear God asking me to mold my essential sadness with my essential joy and bring it to the world in artful ways; in icons and essays and books. It’s hard to even imagine that these two could merge together in such beautiful ways. And to think that this all got started when I found a 35-year-old letter in a garbage bag filled with scrap papers. It just reeks of God.


Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.


Reflections on this essay

What do you think is your essential sadness?

How has it affected the way you think about yourself?

What is the beauty in your flaw?

What has happened to start the healing process for you?

What is your essential joy?

How has it affected the way you think about yourself?

How have the two melded together to give you more depth or wisdom or hope?