In August 2017 I wrote this little piece on feeling sombre while I was house-sitting at a friends’ place in De Pijp. I had no house of my own at the time and that might have contributed to the gloominess that took hold of me. However, I believe that this could have taken place on a regular day, on regular life circumstances, and I want to share it with you today. “Sad is bad” is how this piece started. Well, let’s move on to the text and you’ll probably see what I mean.
“She said, sad is bad
Right now I’m sad. Right now I’m sad and I don’t know what to do with it. It’s not exactly only sadness but more of a distressed heavy-heartedness, if this makes sense. But let’s call it sadness to make it simple. Outside the weather is warm, and there are a lot of interesting free cultural activities going on in the city. I feel I should go out and make the most of the bits of sun available and the opportunity of diving into art. Yet I feel down, I don’t know exactly how to describe this feeling which keeps me laying on the sofa. I try to read my book, and occasionally check social media.
I have no particular reason to be sad. Right now I have no particular reason to be especially happy either. Well, to be honest, I believe I have all reasons to be happy: I have shelter, I have a lot of good friends, I have no big health issues, I live in one of the safest and coolest and most beautiful cities in this world (in my opinion anyway). This should be more than enough to make one happy? Or at least, grateful (which I do). So I am not proud of being sad because, objectively, I have a sweet and privileged life.
Apparently, nobody is fond of feeling sad. When I feel sad I usually try to escape that feeling and cheer myself up as fast as I can. I usually use some sort of quick fix: coffee + cake are one of my go-to’s. But I already did that today. How many coffees + cake does one need to consume for perfect happiness?
When my spirit is low like this, I worry. Why? is the immediate question that afflicts me; and I reproach myself: I have no reasons to be sad; and I worry again: Is it normal to be sad for no reason?. If the feeling doesn’t disappear quick enough I start worrying even more: What does this mean?; What if I get depressed?; I don’t want to be depressed; or even, I refuse to be depressed!. Being really sad makes me feel anxious (as if sadness in itself weren’t enough). Sadness triggers a stress response in me, but it can also trigger anger. I might get angry at myself for my own feelings (How can I allow myself this sadness?; or How stupid are you for being down?!) which is usually worse than what I was feeling in the first place.
I like to be in control. I am a self-made woman in a certain sense. I feel that everything I achieved was due to my own courage and persistence, my drive to happiness. A lot of my decisions in life were not obvious ones to take or, in certain cases, did face some degree of social or familiar opposition. Nevertheless, I ‘successfully’ created the right circumstances to my own happiness, and I am very proud of that. Being sad makes me feel like a failure (and I’m not a failure! I refuse to be one!, screams this mad little voice in my head). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be cheerful all the time? And actually, if I am living THE LIFE, shouldn’t cheerfulness be permanent? Isn’t happiness the ultimate sign of well-being, health, and success? I used to believe so.
I am sad and I detest the word S A D, and I am forcing myself to use it because, you know what, I need to practice being S A D and being okay with it.”
She said, I muscle my way into happiness
I realized that Amsterdive started out of a sort of apology of happiness. I believed in happiness. At Amsterdive I encourage people to explore, to remain curious, to question stuff, to dance – as a way to remain alive from the inside. I make lists of all the interesting activities I find in town, and I use art and yoga to remain inspired and uplifted. By doing this, I want to have a positive impact in those around me, I want to share with them what works for me, what saves my days, what raises my life above mundanity. Amsterdive brought me a lot of fulfilment and, yes, happiness. I want to share this joy with others. When I found my professional path in blogging being low was, no more, part of my plans. I had found my calling and a way of being of service. I had found the way to employ myself in a meaningful way and I believed this was it. This was the cure for gloomy days. So to say.
This reminds me of my dear friend António telling me, one day, how important he thinks it is for people to have tolerance for boredom. I started to think about how maybe 60% of our life is spent in activities we find tedious. Driving in traffic, taking care of the household, waiting at all sorts of places, doing groceries, cooking, taking care of personal hygiene, filling up papers and bureaucratic stuff, repairing other stuff, taking care of humans or animals in our immediate family. Even if you enjoy some of these activities, you surely don’t enjoy them every single day. Having to walk your dog at 7 in the morning is, at times, just a pain no matter how you might love it on most days. I am positive that these sort of tedious mundane activities – which need to be performed over and over again – are the ultimate test of our resilience. And sometimes these are the very tasks I feel I can’t stand anymore. They often feel absolutely meaningless, no matter how much of a positive person one is. Even if just for this, for the practicalities of life, for what it demands of us in terms of endless repetition, routine, and monotonous employment, life would always bring us a share of melancholy. If you top up that existential melancholy with real sources of pain – present or past – you get a picture of how often it is ‘normal’ to feel low. Definitely, more than we would like to admit.
So I objectively have tried to live my life in this pursuit of constant joy, excitement, awe, and pleasure. I convinced myself that if I worked as much as I could in what I’m passionate about, if I met as many good people as I possibly could, if I went to as many cultural and artistic events as I possibly could, if I loved other people as much as I possibly could, I would be saved. And it worked. The only problem with that strategy is that, eventually, it will cease to work so well. If you’re stubborn to push harder, it will cease to work completely.
She said, sad just is and I let it
Permanent joy, excitement, awe, and pleasure are illusory, unattainable goals. We know this from Buddhist books. Those can’t be our goals. They are ‘collateral damage’, possible consequences of living a meaningful life. The more we chase happiness, the more it boils away. I knew this on a certain level of rationality. Accepting it on an emotional level is a different story.
How do you deal with sadness? Well, for starters I’d say: don’t push it away. Listen to what your sadness has to say. Maybe it tells you all those terrifying stories you’ve heard over and over again: “You’re a failure”, “You’re not good enough”, “You’ll never get better”, “You’ll never be happy”. Nothing new there. Let your sadness be, let your sadness talk, don’t argue with it even if it says bullshit. Let it go. But do listen, do pay attention because in the midst of the nonsense there will be acceptance, insight, and true compassion. There will be reasons, also. There will be a thread that takes you to a source. Be compassionate to the sources of your sadness. Acknowledge them, they are good teachers. And then, after looking in, look out. Draw your focus to the world around you, and you’ll see that it’s not just you and your sadness. There are so many things worth paying attention to, worth your focus, worth learning from and about. Can you sparkle curiosity? Can you challenge your own assumptions a little bit? Can you take a fresh look at the world around you?
Feeling sadness is a given for everyone; feeling depressed at some point(s) in our life is very probable for most of us. These are inextricable parts of living life, I realized. Have I accepted it now? Definitely more than one year ago. Have I stopped chasing? Not completely, but I’m getting better at not behaving like a little rat on a wheel. Oftentimes I manage to sit still on it. Sometimes I even manage to get out and observe my own wheel from the outside. Sad is bad? Who said so? Oh yeah, I’ve said that. I guess that now I know (a little bit) better. My sadness is welcome to stay until it’s done its job and eventually it will go too, maybe as gradually as it came. I refrain to chase happiness. Happiness is not for me to chase because it is not for me to own. Happiness just is, the very way somberness is.
So I’ll do my job: get up every morning, take care of me and those I love, be kind to strangers. I’ll do the cleaning and pay the bills. I’ll cycle the city over and over again and do grocery shopping. I’ll write and see friends and go to museums and dancing events. I’ll enthusiasm others to do the same because that’s one thing I do well and I do believe in the importance of rising above the mundane. I’ll share the joy as much as I can. I’ll do all these things because they create the conditions for my spirits to rise and add meaning to my life (even if I keep on getting annoyed in traffic or bored when waiting in line). I won’t chase happiness, I choose contentment. I guess chasing happiness has something to do with a sense of entitlement, while contentment feels humble. It is about gratitude for what is, for the opportunity of life, it is the recognition that we are not alone in the world and we are not the center of it either. This means that I commit to respecting the cycles in the life I inhabit. I choose contentment, do my job, and instead of chasing happiness, I let it visit me instead. Sadness is a tale of happiness, maybe.