The Pursuit of Enough: When sadness lives on the doorstep of happiness
A couple of months ago, I had a conversation about my book with a former professor, a writing mentor. We were trying to get at the heart of this story I’m trying to tell in my memoir. Yes, it’s about prayer and losing it and finding it again in an entirely new, hope-giving way. But what’s underneath that? Why did prayer become something I was so afraid of?
My former professor asked me this question on the phone: “Micha, what was—what is—the psychological enemy in you?
“That’s the center of this story,” she said.
And it is. But getting to the psychological enemy in me is hard work. After that conversation, I hunkered down. I wrote things that hurt, true thoughts in my mind that are probably crazy. And it wasn’t really freeing. It was scary. And then I was Sad.
I went to therapy eight years ago, when I was just a sweet little Texas thing, one year into my marriage, and completely ruled by fear. It turned out that marriage (ie having another person in my life to hold a mirror up to my soul and show me the truth of who I really was) + a commitment to live on the East coast (ie not moving back to my family after grad school which is what good people are supposed to do) + writing sad poems (and realizing maybe my poems were sad because I was sad) + having daily panic attacks about the amount of emails in my inbox and never returning any emails whatsoever because I’d never be able to return all of them = A Problem.
Going to counseling is one of the bravest and wisest things I’ve ever done.
I realized then that I had an assumption about therapy: It was for the Really Messed Up People. I assumed that you went to therapy because there was nothing left to do. It was when Bible studies couldn’t change you any more or you needed medication. And when I finally went to counseling, I’d been in a dark tunnel for a long time.
This time around, when the writing scared me, I told Chris right away. I emailed my church’s pastor of counseling. (Yes! We have one of those! I love my church.) I found a counselor. Not because I was at the end of my rope. But because I am learning that I no longer have to live there, at the end of my rope. Counseling is a beautiful thing because you are spending money and time on the thing that matters most. On Monday evenings when I get in the car after I’ve fed my boys dinner, knowing that Chris will be putting them to bed without me, I think: “Is there anything better I could be doing right now with my time and money than learning how to let God heal me?”
And I believe that. I believe it because I know I’m messed up. I don’t believe I’m messed up in the way that says: “You Guys! I’m SERIOUSLY CRAZY AND I’M SO EMBARRASSED.” I know it in the way that says, “Honey, we are all broken. Aren’t we? And aren’t you so grateful that somebody knows how to help us?”
My counselor said something to me last week about sadness. Because I was joking about Sad Micha and how she shows up and everything gets dramatic.
“What do you mean when you say sad?” she asked.
I had to think about that one for a long time. Maybe what I mean is that Sad Micha feels helpless. Maybe I feel my brokenness. Like I can’t pull it together for my kids. Like I can’t control all the things I’m supposed to control. I can’t be responsible enough. I can’t open all my emails and actually read them and respond to them. I can’t not cry when both of my boys are crying and I’m hysterical about how loud we must be to the downstairs neighbors. And why? Why am I so obsessed with every single person on God’s pretty earth thinking I’ve got it together?
I said, “When Sad Micha comes it’s not the sort of darkness I lived in that first year of our marriage when I was depressed. That darkness was a tunnel and I couldn’t find my way out of it. I was terrified of that tunnel because I thought it meant I’d never be happy again.
“But this sadness. It’s a knowing. It’s heavy and it settles on me. It forces me to recognize that I’m not whole yet. And the world is not whole yet. And I desperately want everything to be whole.”
My counselor shared this passage with me from a book called Practicing the Presence of People by Mike Mason:
“Sadness is one of the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed [or in some translations, ‘Happy’] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matthew 5:4). This suggests that sadness is very, very close to happiness. One could almost say that to the Christian they are the same—or at least that there is not true happiness without its wistful tint of divine sadness, and no sadness that does not stand on the doorstep of happiness.”
I love the kindness of this idea. I love that Jesus’ words are, Happy are the sad people. Maybe the sad people are the healers and the prophets. Maybe the sad people have been given a gift to see the world as it really is. And when we see the world, when we see ourselves as we actually are, we understand how desperately we need God to come and bring healing. We don’t have to pretend anymore. We get to need God.
Only that kind of sadness can lead to happiness.
I talked to Chris about that the other night. We talked about sadness being the steep cliff that lets us fall down into the happiness. We talked about how both of those things—the climbing of the Sad Cliff and the Falling off the Side of It—are scary.
He had just put August and Brooksie to bed. And Chris was leaning over August’s bed in the darkness and they were talking about life. Chris said, “August, can you believe that some day you’re going to be bigger than me when we wrestle and you’ll win? And someday I won’t be able to wrestle at all because I’ll be old and you’ll have to take care of me.”
August said, “I know, Dad.”
And Chris said, “August, what will we do when I can’t wrestle with you anymore? When I can’t tickle you and play with you on the floor?
August turned his face toward my husband’s in the dark. He said, “Don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll always remember.”
And when Chris came out of that dark room where our boys sleep, he sat on the couch and told me the story. My husband doesn’t cry much. But he looked at me with tears in his eyes. And I hugged Chris and we both cried for a minute or so. Then I made a joke and we wiped our eyes and laughed.
My husband said something that night about letting the sadness be real to us. He said something about recognizing that every day we’re losing our kids and everyday they’re becoming their adult selves. They won’t really be the same people they were when they were wild children learning the world and depending on us to show it to them.
“We should grieve that every day,” my husband said. “Because the happiness is there, in the sadness.”