I am a worried man. I worry mostly about things far outside of my own control—like climate change, racism, wealth inequality, the dismantling of our democracy. People get the impression I am an unhappy person. They try to cheer me up. Make a list of positive things in your life, they say, or listen to happy music, or hug your kid.
Really, though, I am content being discontent. Happy moments come along unplanned but recognized, and the best of these are gripped through with melancholy. My son’s birthday party is cause for celebration: what a wonderful, open, caring young man he is, full of empathy and empty of worldliness. Joy cannot happen for me, though, without the melancholy: he will never again have a ninth birthday. Soon the child of this moment will be replaced by the man of the next. All I can do for him is try to teach him gentleness before he gets too big to learn the lesson.
A perfect day of fishing is marked by the impermanence of the natural beauty all around me, by the taking of the fish—the lake’s silver treasure, so strong and vital and alive. It is, for me at least, the knowledge of the impermanence of joy, beauty, happiness, that makes these feelings worth being. The one does not annihilate the other: sadness and joy are both emanations from the same emotional object. The more you can let yourself experience sadness, the more room you carve out in yourself for joy.
Happy and sad are not opposite experiences. We weep with relief, we weep for joy, we weep for the experience of beauty. You probably cry at weddings but you still go to them. You probably cry at the end of Old Yeller, but you’ve still seen it 90 times. You need those tears, seek them out. If you are a man from the U.S., maybe you don’t show them in public, but you still need them and feel them.
Music tells us the same story. There is happy music for people who want to tap their feet and shake their tail-feathers. I enjoy such music—Twist and Shout (the Beatles); Thriller (Michael Jackson); Ladies’ Night (Kool and the Gang)—but I don’t generally prefer it. When seeking out music, I prefer songs that express rather than contradict my dysphoria: Paint It Black (Rolling Stones); Black (Pearl Jam); It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday (Boyz 2 Men); American Pie (Don McLean).
As Watters (2010) notes, sadness for some people is a spiritual experience. The American preoccupation with feeling good, with happiness, comfort, and convenience, tends to spoil this experience for others by importing diagnosis and treatment for sadness. I am therefore defensive when others try, with good intentions, to redirect me towards good cheer and comfort. I don’t have much of a spiritual life to begin with. This space I have carved out for sadness without depression, for futility without despair, for care without attachment, has been very costly: the costs have been depression, despair, and isolation/alienation. This is where I worship without a knowledge of God.
It is not important to me to feel good. I don’t mind when it happens, but I do not seek out the experience. And I love the people who see the sadness, the worry, and have empathy for it. The first response to someone in pain is naturally to try to ease their pain, to fix their problems. But I am not in pain, have no problems. I would suffer more from happiness than sadness, as it would require walking away from this temple in my heart that I have built from empathy and agape. I am simply awake in a world that is not only unkind and unjust but that is naturally blind to such concepts. These are mere human constructs. And with or without this knowledge, still we must strive for kindness and justice. Thank you for your kindness. I hear it and wish to reflect it.
Today, while I am writing this piece, I learn of the last writings of Ray Jasper. In two weeks from the time of this writing, he is going to be murdered by the state of Texas. Whether he is a good man or a bad one, I do not know. I am more sure that his murder will not be justice. He is just one of many Black men in our country pushed into our legal punishment system and treated differently because of the color of his skin. Despite being 14 percent of our population, Black men constitute 34 percent of executions since 1976. Current death row inmates in Texas are 39 percent Black but Black people are only 12 percent of the population. Nationwide, people of color are overwhelmingly more likely to be suspected (e.g., stop and frisk), searched, arrested, targeted by neighborhood, informed on, plea-bargained into the system even when innocent, loaded with unprovable charges to secure the plea agreement, found guilty at trial, and sentenced to longer, harder time than Whites.
I spend most of my allotted worrying time on climate change (and the interlocking political and policy problems that make it so difficult to fight), the great existential threat to all of us. But maybe I should worry more about racism and mass incarceration. Because if we can't get this right, if we let Ray Jasper go quietly, sell his life for cheap, then maybe we deserve to be erased from the world.
Now if I were to leave my keyboard and go to do something to negate, bury, temporize, or annihilate the intense feelings of sadness, angst, and anger that I feel thinking through these issues…this would require slamming the door on my inner temple, walking away from the only worship of which I am capable. If I were a person who could do that, I would be a man I would not like so much. And, like an unused piercing in a child’s earlobe, perhaps that inner space would start to “heal” over, to close up.
I am sorry I cannot quite convey the meaning of my attachment to care, sadness, and angst. But I think people understand nevertheless. Because I am not the only person out there listening to Type O Negative, Tool, Nirvana, Ice-T, Pearl Jam, or the thousand other artists musical and otherwise who cater to our needs for dysphoric expression. I know many others try to live with these feelings and fail: suicide, drugs, alcohol, death by reckless behavior all result. In my own family, there are many examples of such problems of living, and in the wider world, many more. How many of our greatest artists died by their own hands? But I cannot, will not, turn away from this sadness of spirit. If I have anything to contribute to this world, it comes from this place. And, just as the joy of fishing is made rather than marred by the brushes with impermanence, so my journey is important both because of the thin surface on which I choose to walk, but also because of the potential fall to either side.
-- Jason Dias