In Praise of Sadness

06/01/2015 09:46 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

"Dad is sad
Very, very sad
He had a bad day
What a day dad had" -- Dr. Seuss in the immortal "Hop On Pop!"

I can't recall how often I read those rhymes to my two small sons, so many years ago. It was one of their favorites and mine. My life was going well which for a free lance writer meant I was making a living -- no small achievement -- my kids were healthy, my marriage to a wonderful woman was a good one and I was a man who felt he was at the top of his game. So Dad was rarely sad.

These days Dad is often sad. The world has never been a Garden of Eden -- and taking a long view of my long life -- from my childhood during the Great Depression to the wars that followed I cannot say that I am sad because the world has suddenly become an awful place. Today's ISIS and Putin is no match for Hitler and fascism. But I do a fair amount of worrying.

Having granddaughters I worry about acts of violence against women, having African American friends I worry about the injustice they face daily, having gay friends I know that their battle for equality has not ended with marriage but is just beginning, having ailing friends and family I worry about their health -- living near Central Park I am deeply bothered by the monstrous sky scrapers that now cast an evil shadow over the park, towers of Babel inhabited by the one percent hedge fund honchos who believe they own the world, all different orders of concern but none of this worry is a cause of my sadness.

This Dad is not sad because he has had a bad day -- sadness as I experience it seems to spring from an inner source -- not a series of outer events. Rather than something to be cured, I feel that sadness should simply be allowed its proper place and be respected.

When sadness happens I don't ever want anyone to tell me to "cheer up." Sadness may not be as severe as depression. Sadness may not always be joked out of or analyzed out of -- and I find that there can be a certain beauty in sadness. I consider it an existential state, part of the human condition, not necessarily a clinical disease, and like most feelings in life it comes and goes. When I am in Central Park with my dog Sam the Lab my happiness is too fine an experience to not feel anything but joy. When I am working on a play or a book or when my grandchildren visit, I give sadness an unpaid day off, tell it to take a stroll somewhere down the road and don't return until after dark -- I have no time for it. But the children leave, or I depart the park, or close the chapter and sadness once again claims its place in my life.

Sadness is never given proper credit as a great connective between people, just as laughter can be. My sadness and yours helps us to understand each other -- and that connection is of great value when death removes so many of the people we have loved and the real threat to our well being is that hole they leave in your life that can be filled with self-absorption -- self-pity; the solipsism that is often brought on by illness and loss. Getting lost in the self is the real enemy -- forgetting that we live in a world where others have feelings, needs and sorrows that equal if not exceed our own -- that isolates us -- and does real damage to the spirit and the body.

Sadness -- as opposed to clinical depression -- is a vital connection to others -- to life itself. Perhaps it is because sadness is part of the existential voyage we take that makes it feel like a birthright rather than an affliction. For several years I have been writing a series of memoirs, some concerned with family, others with friends, all of them now gone. Certainly my evocation of the past could be a cause for sadness, living with my own dead might have done it, but I feel that making this connection, trying to evoke them has brought as much pleasure into my life as pain. So for the time being I celebrate my sadness. It is a guest that follows the rules, stays for a few days and moves on. Some Americans have made happiness a moral obligation, the smiley face that you are obliged to show the world, and in doing so they distort what it means to live a good and balanced life.

The Elizabethans called sadness melancholy -- that most beautiful word -- and understood that it was a natural part of every life. An ancient seventeenth century scholar, Robert Burton, wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy a huge volume that dissected the nature of melancholy as if it were the human body with so many parts. I tried to read it once in my youth but I gave up midway. Adolescent angst from which I suffered is not melancholy. Seeing sadness through ancient eyes didn't help me a bit. But accepting it as a natural part of the human condition does help. And the knowledge that it passes in time. Maybe the sight of an azalea bush in bloom in Central Park will do it. Gladness is out there -- but from time to time I wish to experience the fullness of my sadness when it arrives uninvited. What a splendid surprise joy becomes when it decides to appear on its own secret schedule. As a father I wish to thank Doctor Seuss for his celebration of sadness so that even the smallest child knows that it is a natural part of life, Dad has it, and so will you, and it is nothing to fear.

Viktor Frankel, a Holocaust survivor wrote the following in his great book Man's Search for Meaning, "the last of the human freedoms -(is) to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Because our forefathers wrote about "the pursuit of happiness" -- a vague enterprise at best - people are led to believe that you must chase happiness -- track it down -- without realizing that the road is often paved with melancholy, sadness is a part of the path that contrary as it may seem leads us to a happy life.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.