Between light and shade

The other day I picked up the mail to find my third unrequested “Readers Digest” (I’ve “unsubscribed” from my non-subscription three times already).  Although I don’t plan to pay for the magazine, I glanced at the cover as I aimed it for the trash bin, an odd title caught my eye: “In Praise of Sadness.”

Besides the obvious irony of the title, it snagged my gaze because it’s been a concept I’ve thought of (irregularly) over the last decade or so, and more frequently in recent months.  I hadn’t meant to dwell on grief after my last post, but this particular topic merits an address.

The author of “In Praise of Sadness,” Hugh Mackay, advocates for sadness.  Not choosing it for ourselves, that is, but fully experiencing it and recognizing the worth of times of grief in our personal growth.  He goes so far as to say that when we fail to fully address our sadness, we become more anxious, stressed out, powerless, and insecure.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Several years ago, on one of my “big” birthdays, my hubby took me on a spiritual retreat (I was like, “Great, no music, no party, no friends, happy birthday” – but it ended up being a fairly pivotal and beautiful weekend for me during a disheartening and disappointing time in my life).  In their library – a beautiful, dark, curl-up-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-fireplace library lined with a vast array of delicious books – I kind of fell upon a little book called “The Lost Virtue of Happiness” (JP Moreland) and the first few pages really challenged my thinking.  Moreland presented the discrepency between our current definition of happiness and the classical understanding of happiness.

According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, happiness is

1. good fortune,

2. a state of well-being and contentment and

3. a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

Moreland likened our current definition of happiness to the excitement and exhileration of a sports game or a party, the kind of emotion that swells, crests, and disappears.  Then we jump from happy experience to happy experience, never satisfied, and glum or depressed in between times.  This resembles a lot of my spiritual life as a teenager and young adult – seeking “mountaintop” experiences with God and believing, when I was in the valleys, that I must not be where he wanted me to be.

The classical definition, at least the one coming from Aristotle, teaches that happiness was our ideal goal in life, but happiness was not this kind of sensory, experience-based emotional state.  Rather, eudaimonia more closely resembles our idea of the word wholeness, which is about living “in accordance with reason; fulfilling our sense of purpose; doing our civic duty; living virtuously; being fully engaged with the world; and especially, experiencing the richness of human love and friendship” (Mackay).

Moreland compares this state of being to dinner music in a restaurant.  While you eat, regardless of your company or conversation (stressful, loving, romantic, friendly, intimate, conflicted, etc), the music in the background is comforting, peaceful, and steady.  Aristotle defined happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” – connecting the difficult choices to follow virtue rather than vice to this kind of happiness or wholeness, and that this state of happiness is a totality of our lives rather than just found in the moments of delight.

This kind of wholeness does not exclude sadness or times of despair, which are just as genuine and meaningful as our joy.  In fact, times of grief and sadness often develop in us the ability to live courageously, compassionately, even nobly.  Most of us, when we look back over our experiences, can see that the valleys we have faced have often led to deeper understanding of God, of ourselves, of the world around us; and that those experiences have, indeed, been some of the greatest teachers in our lives.  Turns out the apostles of the Bible knew a thing or two here, as well: “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 3:3-4)

So, after all that, I have to think of my children.  I do wish I could choose the sorrows they will face – and indeed wouldn’t choose some of the sorrows that they will face – but that is beside the point.  My deepest wish for them is not that they are happy as our world sees it, but rather that they find wholeness by plumbing the depths of all their experiences – those joyful and those sorrow-giving – that they make the choice to do what is right by God and humanity regardless of the cost; that they allow themselves to hurt when they need to and celebrate when life calls it out of them.  I pray that I can teach them that sadness is not the enemy, but an instructor of perseverance, character and hope; and that true, pure, and boundless joy can be found in those dark valleys too.


“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.
“The richness of life lies in the interplay between light and shade.”
Hugh Mackay

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lois Miller
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 05:13:26

    Crystal, once again your writing is so thought provoking and well expressed.


  2. beth@redandhoney
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 12:20:46

    I love this. I studied this kind of stuff in my university days as a philosophy major, and I just loved Aristotle. He was incredibly wise.


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