Unhappiness, Sadness, Sorrow: A Meditation

Part 1: Sadness is fundamental to being human. So is the need to move on.

Posted Mar 20, 2019

Recently, a loved one in our family died. His passing was sudden; it was unexpected. He was too young, or so the rest of us insisted, for this to have happened. Like ourselves, he had commitments to the people around him and dreams for the years ahead. He had so much to live for.

A good friend of ours, himself a minister, says that death comes in two forms: Sometimes it is a blessing, a welcome release from a long period of suffering or a fitting culmination to a life well lived. Alternately, it comes as theft, a taking of something it has no right to claim.  Our brother’s passing was of the latter sort. Without warning, a vibrant person vanished from our midst. And we who are left behind continue to reel from that loss.

There is, of course, nothing unique about this report. Death comes to us all. Sometimes that occurrence makes sense; sometimes it doesn’t. Most adults have known misfortune of this very sort. Many have even darker stories to tell. 

Because of those shared experiences, we construct and honor narratives that help us find some measure of solace. We tell ourselves that our loved one has moved on to some new plane of being, where they are finally free from the uncertainties and disappointments of ordinary existence. We emphasize that they remain with us in the very profound sense that they continue to be fixtures in our minds and that they will hold that status until the moment of our own departing. Their part of the relationship may end; ours does not. We stress the good works they have done, the models for living they have provided. Surely, our world is different because of knowing them. Sometimes, as in the case of parenthood or other generative ventures, our very existence depends on their having lived.   

We mourners find what comforts we can. With effort, we return to our various routines. Even as we do this, we experience waves of depletion, disorientation, and sadness. Those waves of grief, we understand, will become less frequent, and less powerful, over time. However, we also know that our circumstances have changed forever. Our loved one will no longer be with us in the ways to which we are accustomed, in the ways we want and need. Trying to move forward as we must, we find ourselves paralyzed by the facts of disconnection. In that sense, our sadness is a crisis of understanding, a monumental shift in the terms of existence.

Because such feelings are so fundamental a portion of the human condition, it is valuable to think about them here.  Sadness (and its derivatives) is one of the six basic emotions — the others being happiness, fear, disgust, surprise, and anger — that seem to be hardwired into our constitutions.  Because of that, people express unhappiness in much the same fashion. Shown a photograph of a sad face, people from across the world can identify what that individual is feeling and what conditions may have caused this. Within groups, our expressions of sadness tell others to regard us in a certain way.  “Be aware that we are damaged and not fully functioning.  Support us, please.  Otherwise, leave us alone.”

It is important to consider also the different kinds, and levels, of discontent. Of the three terms in this essay’s title, unhappiness is surely the most general and widely spread. Typically, we find ourselves unhappy “about” something that has occurred — or seems likely to occur — in a situation that affects us. Often, it is some external condition that disappoints us: our team just lost its big game; our newspaper wasn’t delivered this morning; a forecast of rain threatens to ruin a day at the beach. Alternately, we can be disappointed in ourselves: we broke out diet yesterday; we performed poorly on a test; we made some ill-considered remarks to a friend. Past disappointments may cause us to feel remorse or regret. Concerns about the future produce worry or anxiety. The present offers countless instances of disgruntlement. In any case, we can do little about these failings now. So we linger in our discomfort and plan our escape from it.

Sadness is deeper and more enduring. Sometimes, it has a clearly recognized cause — perhaps those ill-considered remarks we made to that friend — but there is also a sense that this condition cannot be undone, or at least undone in any clear and effective way. Typically, also, sadness transcends the situation that was its source. It becomes a quality of the person, a pattern of psychological engulfment. We who are sad find that we cannot go about our lives in the usual ways. We brood, often unproductively. We see few prospects for feeling better.  Sometimes, when we hold ourselves responsible for our predicament, it resounds through our being as shame.

Similar to unhappiness, factors beyond our control can cause sadness. Neglected children commonly carry feelings of being unworthy, and unwanted. Victims of rape, and other forms of abuse, wonder why this happened to them, why they mistrust the world, and why they cannot tell their story to others. Wars, natural disasters, and accidents commonly dislocate and disable. Of special pertinence to sad feelings are physiological conditions that disrupt normal functions of brain and body.  We are depressed, commonly at levels — and with effects — we have difficulty recognizing.  Despite the good wishes of family and friends, we cannot escape our mind’s prison.

Sorrow is an extension, and refinement, of sadness. Much like sadness, sorrow persists over time.  It often has an identifiable cause —such as the death of a loved one that begins this essay — but it semi-detaches from that event and becomes a mental fixation.  Sorrowful people ponder and reminisce. They wonder how events might have transpired differently.  They question what role they themselves played, or didn’t play, in the chain of circumstances.

More than other types of unhappiness, sorrow is characterized by feelings of resignation. In some cases, that acceptance of the inevitable is acknowledged as legitimate. After all, what can any of us do now to bring back our loved one? More than that, sorrow is often an expected condition for, particularly grievous events. In that context, most societies have ritualized periods of mourning.  Those who violate those rules — or who bounce back too quickly from their sorrow ˗ are suspect, or worse, contemptible.

Can sorrow acquire energy of its own? Romantic poets like Goethe or Poe made fashionable the brooding young person who cannot reconcile himself to ordinary existence. During those decades of the nineteenth century, melancholy was associated with sincerity and soulfulness.  Think of so many of the great novels of that era as well, where protagonists loved and lost and rued that separation. Better to live quietly with the memories of a lost love than to trudge through sunless days with mediocre companions. Accuse me of many things, or so the romantic has it, but do not think that I will ever forget – and thus dishonor – those who meant everything to me.        

In that light, let us remember here a once-famous book.  Four hundred years ago, a retiring bachelor-scholar at Oxford, Robert Burton, penned his great compendium, The Anatomy of Melancholy. That work, which the author revised several times during his lifetime and which reached ultimately more than 1400 pages, was essentially a gathering of knowledge from the ancient Greeks onward about the causes, and cures, of human discontent. Burton, himself of a melancholy disposition, wrote of his subject so that he might “by being busy,” avoid its consequences.

Many of Burton’s purported causes of unhappiness seem fanciful today.  His was an age that believed in the alignments of the stars, the mischief of bad angels and devils, “retention and evacuation,” and even “bad air,” as factors in human discontent.  He supported the classical world’s depiction of the four bodily humors as determinants of individual functioning.  For its part, melancholy was thought to be the psycho-organic expression of black bile, that which is cold and dry, dark and sour.

Burton’s book also addressed the social and psychological causes of suffering. Misery may result from the immoderate pursuit of pleasure.  It can stem from uncompleted relationships in love or religious devotion. He analyzes, at great length, poverty and slavery. He cites deficiencies in diet and exercise. Much more generally, he expresses his understandings — as a person living in 1621 — of the severe unpredictability of existence, the pains, and punishments of physical and spiritual life, and the challenges of living ably before one’s god.

To be sure, medicine, counseling, and the human sciences have moved on since Burton’s time.  Still, many of his insights seem as pertinent today as they did to his contemporaries. Much unhappiness may be traced to physiological and psychological imbalances. Much comes from spiritual unease, comprehended as a crisis in the deepest regions of self-understanding.  Existential circumstances (like war, poverty, and slavery) still torture their victims. Many of us have bouts of depression that come and go.  For others, as for Burton himself, that condition “is a continuing disease.”        

I do not dispute Burton’s long-ago thesis, that discontent comes from many quarters. Nor do I discount his interest in extreme imbalances and disruptions. Nevertheless, I believe that discontent must be analyzed as a more general feature of social relationships. I believe that unhappiness comes in different types, each of which we should attend with concern. Different kinds of relationships produce different kinds of misery. 

I develop that theme – essentially, offering a theory of the social sources of human discontent – in Part II of this essay.