This morning I’m thinking about sadness.
I woke up feeling blue. Not too sad, really; it’s Saturday, which is lovely, and though I had a long and difficult week, there were some excellent moments with friends, with writing, with my wife and our pets. But I was down; melancholy. I slogged around the house for a half an hour while the coffee cooked, and then I took my dogs for a long, slow walk. (Though they wanted to go for a long, fast walk, with many sudden stops for sniffies. I wouldn’t let ’em. Misery loves company. [Actually, I let them have their sniffies. We just didn’t walk that fast. They didn’t seem to mind too much.])
While I was walking, I was thinking. Why do we get sad? I’m an atheist, so anything to do with metaphysics or God’s will or sin isn’t a good enough answer for me. I know the Buddhist answer is that suffering is a consequence of desire; I get that for anger, or grief, and certainly envy or jealousy; but melancholy? I don’t think I was desiring anything this morning other than not being sad — and being sad because I wish I wasn’t sad seems like much too cruel a cosmic Catch-22 to be reasonable. I suppose there could be an argument that the particular melancholy this morning was the result of an unfocused desire, that I wish my life was different in some ways and so when I woke up into the same life, as a steadily aging public school teacher who still hasn’t achieved success as a writer, it made me sad. Maybe so, but I wasn’t really thinking about any of those things; I was just — blue.
What about modern science and pyschology? As far as I know (And that bummed me out, too, because I realized that even though I don’t know what role sadness plays in our psyche or our evolution, somebody out there does; so this whole chain of thought isn’t because I’m deep, it’s because I’m ignorant. I feel like that is pretty much always true: that any question I have, someone out there knows the answer, and if I just took the time to look, I’d learn the truth. Sometimes that makes me hopeful, and sometimes it makes me hopeless.) the model of emotions is that they are nothing but chemical reactions, hormones released in the brain and limbic system in response to stimuli. I think as well that the idea is that all aspects of human existence evolved as the result of some kind of survival pressure, because in some way it gives us an advantage. Anger makes us strong and aggressive; love helps us pair-bond for mutual cooperation and procreation; fear is a warning of danger. Even when those emotions are not targeted in an evolutionarily advantageous way, like when we get angry at video games, or fall in love with our cars, or when we’re afraid of moths (Don’t look at me like that: they are Satan’s butterflies.)
But what evolutionary advantage does sadness give us? How does being blue help me to find food or evade predators on the savannah?
It’s possible that sadness is a misdirected emotional cue. Like modern food and eating habits make us fat because our bodies are geared towards craving sugar, salt, and fat, as all three of those have definite survival advantages if you’re living out on the savannah: sugar gives you quick energy to run away from lions, fat contains vitamins and gives long term energy storage, salt helps us BECAUSE ELECTROLYTES ARE WHAT A BODY CRAVES. It’s just that food today can be manufactured with so much fat, salt, and sugar, where foragers or hunter-gatherers on the savannah had a much harder time collecting them, that our reward system, geared to give strong rewards for tiny amounts gained after strenuous work, overrewards us for just sitting around and horking down Cheez-Its. It’s a misdirected survival mechanism, because we didn’t evolve with 2019 in mind.
But sadness, I would argue, doesn’t always have a trigger. (As I’m writing this, though, I’m getting more and more tired, and curling up with a blanket and going back to sleep sounds absolutely wonderful, so suddenly I’m wondering if melancholy is simply a signal to slow down and have a snooze. Maybe so. I’m still going to finish my point.) Even when it does, when you see someone hurt, or hear about suffering and despair in the world, how does it help me to deal with that if I feel depressed because of it? What possible adaptive value could being in a funk present?
So there I am, walking my dogs, dragging my feet and hanging my head, and thinking about the value of sadness, and what it could possibly be good for. What could sadness do for us. What power does sadness have. Power. And then I thought: imagine if someone gained power from being sad. Like Samson and his hair, but with angst. Imagine if the Hulk got stronger when he was sad, instead of when he was angry. Imagine if someone had to make themselves sad in order to be strong, and the sadder they got, the stronger they were. Imagine if someone was a sorceror, say, and instead of sacrificing a virgin to Baal, they had to break their favorite childhood toy, or watch a hurt animal try to walk.
Hmmm. Just imagine.
And just like that, I came up with an idea for a book I’d like to try to write. I still need to flesh it out, work on the characters and build the world, and come up with a plot and all; but I really love the concept. Which I came up with because I was feeling down.
So that, I think, is the value of sadness. It does help us to slow down and take it easy, too, because when we’re sad I think we don’t want to do anything but curl up and sleep, and particularly in our overworked overstressed world, that is very important and very, very good for us. But mainly, I think that sadness, by the simple fact that we generally don’t like it, makes us want to do something to change the way we feel. This is the same argument I make with my students about learning: they need to feel uncomfortable, they need to feel like they’re missing something, in order for them to learn; if they are perfectly content, then their brains don’t seek out a solution to the problem, because there’s no problem. So the brain just closes its eyes and takes a nap, so to speak, if the person is too comfortable. It’s when we are uncomfortable that the brain seeks out a new equilibrium, by observing and processing what is around ; that is how we learn best.
Maybe sadness does the same. Maybe sadness is an inspiration, a impetus, to get off our butts and do something to take the sadness away.
Or else it’s my brain and body telling me I really need to nap. I’m going to go lie down, now. And maybe think about my new idea.