Sorrow (repost from 2005, with some updates)


Van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Rain scatters plum petals;
Weeping stains the earth.
One can only take shelter
And wait for clearing.

When sorrow comes, its bitterness soaks everything. The sages say that life is illusion, but does that change its poignancy? Let us be sad; it is feeling that makes us human. If we gain enlightenment, understanding all life to be a dream, sadness and happiness will fall away soon enough.

The greatest sorrow of life is witnessing. Experiencing our own sufferings is not as difficult as watching others held in fate’s mighty grip. Bearing our own problems is easier because we are always aware that we can exercise other options — up to the final one. However, it hurts the most when we can do nothing for others. The greatest sorrow is to see those we love suffer helplessly.

When faced with a sad situation, it is best not to languish in it. We can change things by being with different people, moving to other places, or, if all else fails, adjusting our own attitudes to take the initiative. Sadness is transitory, like everything else. If we want to deflect it, we need only alter its context and allow it to be subsumed back into Tao.

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.  — Henri Nouwen

The Last Best Book of Everything

I dreamed of the ending
An end-of-the-universe dream
We wrote a book called
“The Last Best Book of Everything”
It was full of jokes and stories
Full of love
Poems and flowers and more
It was sad, losing everything.
But it was joyous, remembering
What we had.

– Donna Woodka

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

– Mary Oliver (via Whiskey River)

My flowering plum has died, after being so gorgeous for so many years. Now other plants must move into the spotlight. I grow many flowers, so I almost always have something blooming. But I do feel a tinge of sadness whenever something dies and I have to remove it from the garden. I console myself that they are making room for new things to grow, or stepping aside so other blooms can be the star for a while.

It’s a lot harder to feel that way about the sorrows that befall us in life. It’s hard to to watch loved ones’ health failing, and see the dramatic changes it brings not only to their health, but to how they can live. It’s hard to watch our society struggle with change, and to see so many fall into poverty or bankruptcy because of health care costs. The best of our politicians fight just to try and make the changes we need, while others argue against basic humanity and caring for the sake of profit.

My nephew is bipolar, and had chosen to be off his medication and doing drugs. It’s hard to watch him make mistakes in his life, harder still that I can’t fix it for him. This year, he decided to go to rehab, and is now celebrating eight months of sobriety. I’m proud of him for that, but it is still a struggle every day for him.

Witnessing the sorrow of others is definitely harder than the sorrow I have felt over my own losses in life. I spent many years fighting depression before being properly medicated; I know very well the feelings of deep sorrow. I know that those times do indeed pass, eventually. But that is small comfort when you are going through those sorrowful times yourself.

But the saddest thing for me, really, has been witnessing what happens with those who will not express their feelings. Those people who have cut me off from their lives, not even speaking to me anymore. They didn’t care how much that hurt me, how deep my sorrow was at losing them. They couldn’t express their own feelings of loss to me, even to tell me that they too, felt deeply hurt at what had passed between us, and missed me or regretted their actions. They couldn’t express their own feelings. That is, indeed sorrowful. And I mourned more for them than for those people who are gone from my life to death, because I knew how those who died felt about me, their love for me, the passions and joys and sorrows of their lives.

To anyone you have differences with or feel sorrow for, let them know. Even if they choose not to accept what you say, you will reconcile your own feelings in your own spirit, and no longer be tormented by those feelings. Closure is a very important thing, and all people need to feel it when a life or relationship ends. Go to the funerals of your friends and loved ones, even if you hate funerals (we all do, really). Send a card to someone you haven’t been speaking to. It will make a difference to them. Or, if not, it will make a difference to you.

Sadness is transitory. So is life. And isn’t it better to make life more pleasant for those around you, to be there to comfort those who need it, to say, “I’m really sorry for what happened and I regret that I can’t have you in my life” and to find meaning and expression in sorrow, rather than merely letting it pass without a poem, a tree planted, or just a soft prayer to whatever god happens to be around, or to the Tao itself.