We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.
Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.
We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.
It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.
2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.
There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.
Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.
Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.
The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.
The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.
Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.
The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.
The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.
That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.
Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.
Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.
Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.
But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.
Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.
Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.
Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.
People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.
Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.
As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.
So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.
Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.
After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.
Let’s have a happy new year.