There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad. Sadness can become a real barometer to help us cope with the harsh realities of life. When we pay attention to our own sadness, we can find issues that are below the waterline that will help us; inform us; teach us and comfort us. Sadness is really a necessary place we humans must experience. To attempt to avoid sadness is to avoid the full dimension of being human. Pills can medicate us; drugs can calm us but the real feelings of sadness mark us as normal people in a "amped up" culture. To deny sadness, is to believe the lie that happiness can be lived out all of the time by all of the people. The truth is this: there are many things that happen in life that should make us sad and need to make us sad. Suffering. Tragedy. Loss. Failure. Moral collapse and many more realities all contribute to some ones emotional and spiritual equilibrium.The Christian culture in particular is often in-ept to help people cope with sadness. Churches can "whoop it up for Jesus" in worship and never equip people to actually know how to lament--and to know there is an entire book of the Bible named, "Lamentations". True worship needs both dimensions of the human experience. True spiritual health embraces sadness and I hope we can better equip the folks within the church to learn better how to cope. In my thinking, this is true discipleship--as much as memorizing Scripture or studying Romans.When you read the Psalms, you do not find that the Psalmist every avoided or denied his own feeling of being sad sometimes. The sad Psalms are juxtaposed to the bright and happy God poems. Both are important. Both are vital to our human experience. Both are necessary.When we examine the life of Jesus, we also see someone who embraces sadness as normal. He cried when his dear friend, Lazarus died. He felt lonely. He experienced rejection. He went through disappointment. He was not the eternal optimist. He spoke of dark endings and tribulations. He held the sad with the courageous feelings in his own heart.In my work with people who work in the marketplace and ministry, I hear many sad stories. Marriage woes. Vocational wilderness. Prodigal children. Failure both morally and professionally. Sin. Entrapment. The death of dreams and more. Gwen and I are coached in our work by those more trained and seasoned than we are. One of our mentors, a Christian psychiatrist told us, a few years back, “You two have grossly underestimated the residual effect of listening to so many sad stories.” He went on to explain that the soul is like a sponge that can absorb the emotions the soul sits in. He helped us develop a plan to deal with the sadness we hear and the sadness we experience in our own life.As we began to deal with our own sad hearts, we've found some helpful things we try to practice on a daily basis. I’m thinking these will encourage you as well.Here are 6 ways of working with sadness:
- Walk every day. Danish theologian, Soren Kiekrkegarrd wrote, “Above all, do not lose you desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” I’ve found this to be absolutely true. In our modern world, we move fast and quick. Walking steps every single day is medicinal. But walking is a very basic form of coping with sadness that forms a rhythm and cadence for the body and brain. Step by step, we walk away from issues and in that cadence we find ourselves greatly helped. It’s beneficial physically, spiritually and emotionally. These days, I’m trying to walk 10,000 steps each day and it’s helping me in every way imaginable. My doctor agrees and so does my blood pressure. I unpack this more in Embracing Soul Care in a chapter called, "Walking with God."
- Use the ancient practice of the Daily Examen. This is a simple and brief exercise done each day where you think back on your day to examine where you saw the fingerprint of God in our day and encounter. You ask yourself two basic questions: Where in my day did I experience the beautiful? This question causes you to evaluate your encounters with people and events to trace some form of consolation, comfort and Divine in your day. The second question is the opposite. Ask yourself, “Where did you experience the brutal?” The brutal is those places of desolation, darkness and discomfort. Don’t unpack them. Just acknowledge your feelings and impressions. Gwen and I do this every single night. It’s our way of connecting; sharing with each other our inner world impressions and really trying to practice what we call “deep listening” with each other. Ignatius said if a person practiced the Daily Examen for three months—their life would be changed forever. I agree. It makes us more sensitive to the movements of God in our life and our reaction, reflection and acknowledgement of our own feelings. Do this as a family—no matter what age your kids are. Do this in our marriage or with friends. I explain the Daily Examen more in The Jesus Life.
- Read the Psalms. I remember the day Dallas Willard told me, “We need to read the Psalms every day because the Psalms were the prayer book of Jesus—the only prayer book he ever had.” The Psalms document the wide range of human feelings, divine encounters and our human dilemma. They do not deny the normal, everyday feelings that a human being will experience in the journey of life. They give words to the unutterable feelings we have inside and we find in reading them that we are not alone. I use the Daily Office as a way to read the Psalms. This way, I do not have to choose what to read. The Psalms are chosen for me and in reading them, I am connecting my own life to the long lineage of men and women across time spans and countries that are also practicing reading what I am reading. I am connected. I am not alone. It helps. It simply helps.
- Share the Sadness. Community is the place where we walk with those who weep or at least try to listen empathetically. Community is not the place where we tell the good and deny the hard. It is a place where we sit and share the realities of this life. We do not try to fix someone’s sadness. We refrain from giving advice. We do not attempt to teach them the way out of their black hole. The number one reason that so much community is pseudo is this: We do not know how to really listen. We are already forming our response as someone else is unpacking their dark night of the soul. Being a companion literally means to enter into the begging posture with someone else. I try to give an honest assessment of the difficulty of being in and living with community in The Jesus Life in a whole chapter and also in Soul Custody.
- Fix your mind on a greater perspective every single day. The apostle Paul, shared with us to do this exercise. Warning: do not read this fast. Sit with each phrase and see what speaks to you.
“ Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies" Philippians 4:6-9 MSG.
Paul says to fill our minds with thoughts that help counter all the hard things we have heard and experienced in life each day. When we read Paul’s encouragement, we must remember he wrote these very words while chained to a wall in a Roman prison house. He knew this helped him. He knew it would help us. 6. Keep your work your work. By establishing a high boundary, I'm finding that I can keep my work at work and then live my life without bringing the sad stories home. When we are home, our challenge is this: we work together and live together, so a high, high boundary has been absolutely essential to help us keep our work our work and not dwell in our work or with our work when we are home. However, when our friends are in peril or our kids--then we find ourselves in peril with them. I think that is normal and keeping the high boundary becomes a very real challenge. In the end, we turn our friends and family over to the hands of God---we cannot hold them as God does. As we come to realize this, we lessen our grasp on the problems and seek to be held in the very hands of God we have come to trust. To feel sad it to feel more like Jesus than to deny our God-given feelings. We honor our heart when we give ourselves permission to be human.