When We Feel the Tears of Blessedness, We Feel Alive

March Madness brings a poignancy for all ages, especially the elders

Posted Mar 29, 2017

In the sports coverage this week, watching the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, there is much emotion. And for the 63 losing teams in the end, especially for the seniors, we will see lots of those poignant moments: the heartbreak of loss and the double heartbreak and beauty of saying good bye to their athletic careers and a game they love. They may have the same feeling a few months from now at graduation about the school where they started their trek into adult life.

“237/365 Bittersweet [explored]” by martinak15 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: “237/365 Bittersweet [explored]” by martinak15 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This happy/sad blend can be called poignancy. It is the bittersweet state we have all felt when a joyous but fleeting thing happens: when you see your daughter at her wedding and it’s proud love and expansion for her, but some real sadness that the days of your parenting her as a kid and a teen are over. It is the retirement dinner when you say good bye to work you love and no longer can do, knowing you have given it your all and that your work gave back to you.

When you look in the eyes of an old person you may see it fairly often. In those elder eyes happiness and sadness blend in the same life-intense gaze. I remember first noticing it when I was in my 30s, and I have seen it many times since -- and even more now that I am hanging out with elders more regularly.

The research (Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, & Carstensen, 2008) indicates that elders experience poignancy more than those in youth. Maybe we have more good byes of all kinds, as our friends leave us in increasing numbers, and old work patterns no longer serve us. Maybe we feel the constraints of time that were not there when we were younger. For many reasons, the bittersweet poignancy of life becomes a familiar place if we shut off our TVs and take the time to sense the moments, savoring the passing beauty and joy.

I have been on a quest to find what is better about old age than being younger. I suspect that we may overlook the downsides of youth and, looking at elders through the eyes of youth, we over-estimate, physical decline as the primary experience.  Many of the younger boomers I interview can’t think of much, if anything at all, when I pose the question, “what is better now that you are older?”

But one thing seems to be clear. On the emotional scale, elders have the advantage of happiness (more on that in a future post about that research) and they have a good advantage on the poignancy side.

Sports is not the only place to capture poignancy. Art does too.

Tolkien captured this in Lord of the Rings, at the end of the great war, after so much loss but a final victory ending in a celebration, he wrote that the victors “thoughts go out to regions where pain and joy glow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

In Fiddler on the Roof, the song “Sunrise/Sunset” captures the mood of the parents as their daughters become women, find men, marry, and the life cycle continues. “One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.”

Bring on the poignancy, our most precious times of sensing the fullness of life. And may Gonzaga win it all.


Ersner-Hershfield, H., Mikels, J. A., Sullivan, S. J., & Carstensen, L. L. (2008). Poignancy: Mixed Emotional Experience in the Face of Meaningful Endings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 158-167.

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