Appreciating the Plain Fact of Human Sorrow
Finding richness, meaning, and purpose in sorrow.
Posted Sep 19, 2010
We live in a culture that doesn't like sorrow much. The signs of it are everywhere. Commercials ask us if we feel anxious or sad and then sell us drugs if the answer is yes. The framers of the new fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders are ready to transform bereavement into a disease.
But there's another thing we can do. We can pause. We can take some time. We can appreciate the plain fact of human sorrow.
A few years ago, I was in a conversation about a client who had lost a child in an automobile accident. Carl Rogers in his landmark 1961 book On Becoming a Person said "What is most personal is most general." I take that admonition seriously. So, upon hearing of the loss of this child, it seemed right to look deeply into my own experience before responding. I haven't lost a child, but I have lost a brother. I thought about losing Randy and about the meaning of that loss in my own life.
It turns out that it's very hard for a new tree to find a good spot to germinate and grow on the forest floor. The light is low and the ferns compete for every bit of space and light they can gather. Those fallen trees give the seeds a place above the ferns with a bit more light and moisture and nourishment. If you have an eye for those rows of trees you can spot them long after the old tree has sunk into the forest floor.
Sometimes in life new things grow from things that have fallen, not away from them. I find myself wondering, if something new could grow out of the tragedy of a lost child, what might grow there?
And I find myself wondering about the people reading this right now. Do you know about things fallen? About things irrevocably lost? I wonder if you would be willing to stop a moment to acknowledge that loss, to know its face when you see it. If you could grow something new and beautiful from that loss, that could honor what has fallen, what might that be?
I feel that way about my older brother Randy, who we lost to suicide so many years ago. The small trees didn't start growing right away. But the minutes, hours, and days have filled years since then-to the brim. And nearly twenty-five years later, I can still see Randy's face, especially his lopsided grin. As I look at all I've nurtured in my life since then, people and projects that stand across the years like seedlings, all in a row, fed by that tragedy, I wonder if he would be proud of me. If he would feel honored by my memory of him.
I think we owe it to our clients, to our friends, family, and fellows, to do better than pathologizing or demonizing the sadness that will surely visit us all one day. Love and loss are poured from the same vessel. There is no way to turn away from what we have lost without turning away from what we have loved.
I invite people, students, clients, you, to come to rest in my little garden where an appreciation of sorrow is not a disease. Let yourself settle in and breathe. Let yourself be saturated. Let a conversation grow up. Let yourself wonder what new things might grow from the rich loam of living.
John Erskine said it beautifully in his 1906 poem Actæon
One drought of Lethe for a world of pain
An easy bargain; yet I keep the thorn,
To keep the rose.
Randy? If you are listening? Please know that I remember you, fondly, still, and tend a little garden in your honor.
Namaste Y'all from Oxford, Mississippi,
Co-author of Things Might Go Terribly Horribly Wrong, 2010, Mindfulness for Two, 2009, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change, 1999. Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Mississippi and Founder of Onelife Education and Training, LLC
(Photo in Italy by Mauro Leoni, 2010)