Don't Worry, Be Sad

Michael Metzger

Press down.
Springboard diving supports Sir Isaac Newton’s theorem that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The harder you press down on the flexible board, the higher you spring back. So here’s a simple question: what did you do last Friday? Enjoy a movie or dinner with friends? Good. Did you also throw in an hour or two of sorrow? If you experienced both – joy and sorrow – you understand the good of Good Friday.

The dynamic between sorrow and joy has a long and storied history. If you venture back in time, you’d see that joy and sorrow were bedfellows – but not strange ones. Life was tougher in many ways and sorrow couldn’t be shunned. Mothers gave birth and passed away within minutes. Travel was as exciting as it was harrowing (the root of travel is travail, a journey fraught with danger). Sorrow and joy were part and parcel with life.

The early church held joy and sorrow in tension in the “four chapter” gospel and saw the good in both. Chapter Two represented the fall – taking the plunge and facing the brutal reality of life as it is. This produced a healthy sorrow. Chapter Four represented the final restoration – what we hope will be. Our best example is Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Periodically pressing down on sorrow meant springing back more joyfully.

I’m not saying we should return to a day of hunchbacked hags with no teeth and bumps on their noses, no doctors, and living in the dark. I am suggesting we ask what happened to the springboard?

In his Second Treatise of Government (1690), John Locke declared that human beings were entitled to “life, liberty and”—get this—“estate.” Yes, real estate as in private property. But Thomas Jefferson altered our entitlements to life, liberty and “the pursuit of happiness” in 1776. Today, “make even a passing scan of today’s bestseller lists, and you’ll find a veritable happiness racket: titles urging us to start ‘Living Well’ and ‘Become a Better You’ and master ‘The Secret’ and (my personal favorite) be ‘Happy for No Reason.’”1 But are we indeed happy?

Why does a “happy” country consume over 95% of the antidepressants taken in the world? How is it that the number of depressed American children being treated with antidepressants has soared over the past decade? “The use of antidepressants among children grew three- to tenfold between 1987 and 1996, data from various studies indicate, and a newer survey found a further 50 percent rise in prescriptions between 1998 and 2002.”2 Could it be that happiness is overrated and ignores Newton’s law?

These are the kinds of questions raised by Eric G. Wilson in his new book Against Happiness. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, is concerned about our cultural landscape that claims to be happy yet creates some of the highest rates of suicide, drug abuse, and violence in the world. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, nearly 85 percent of us believe ourselves to be happy or very happy. Yet this is “a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble,” writes Wilson.

Joy without trouble. Like trying to pole vault without a pole or trying to win the gold medal in springboard diving without a springboard. This “overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness,” Wilson writes, produces only blandness, conformity, and “a dystopia of flaccid grins.” Flaccid grins are part of flat lives. Great joy springs from genuine sorrow. You can’t spring back if you don’t first press down.

One of the astonishing discoveries from Philip Brand’s lifelong work with lepers was that the less pain people experience, the less they can endure.3 Yet the more pain a person experiences, the more they can endure and the greater their joy. Newton’s law. My mother-in-law suffers from the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis yet is one of the most joyful people I know. Not always happy; but full of joy. Press down, bounce back.

“I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness,” writes Peggy Noonan. “If you do not believe in another, higher world, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.”4

The Apostle Paul said life could be perplexing but he was never despairing (II Cor. 4:8). He understood the ancient wisdom that “crying is better than laughing. It blotches the face but it scours the heart. Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving. Fools waste their lives in fun and games” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4). The joy that Jesus exuded and made him attractive sprang from sorrows and familiarity with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).

Long ago, Good Friday was good because it advanced “a certain time-element of asceticism” that has gone out of vogue wrote Philip Rieff.5 Asceticism is a ten-dollar word for somberness or sorrow. Before Jefferson, people believed joy was “achieved painfully and at great cost.”6 If you don’t have a habit of periodically pondering the sorrows of the world, Good Friday did you little good. Why not try again this Friday?

1 Louis Bayard, “The Down Side: Sadness may be good philosophy—and better for you,” Washington Post, March 2, 2008, p. 2.
2 Shankar Vedantam, “Antidepressant Use in Children Soars Despite Efficacy Doubts” Washington Post, April 18, 2004; Page A01.
3 Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993).
4 Peggy Noonan, “You’d cry too if it happened to you: We have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated,” Forbes Magazine: September 14, 1992.
5 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, Second Edition, 2007), p. 40.
6 Rieff, p. 41.


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  1. Another voice in support of your theme: Mary Baker Eddy, author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:

    “Sorrow has its reward. It never leaves us where it found us.” (p 66)

    “Trial teach mortals not to lean on a material staff,–a broken reed, which pierces the heart. We do not half remember this in the sunshine of joy and prosperity. Sorrow is salutary. Through great tribulation we enter the kingdom. Trials are proofs of God’s care.” (p 66)

  2. Excellent article! Concerning ‘the pursuit of happiness’. I’ve read that in Jefferson’s day that phrase also meant to ‘to pursue a life of virtue’ which is a lot different than what people today think of when they think of ‘happiness’.

    Keep up the great writing! I teach Biblical Worldview classes and frequently forward your writing to my students.

    Dave Eaton
    Deephaven, MN

  3. “We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.” — Thucydides

    If Christ learned obedience through suffering, we should not expect that the path to victory is found in any other way. Without a cross there is no resurrection. What is true of spiritual realities is also true in athletic contests and on fields of battle.

    Emily Dickenson put this this way:
    “Success is counted sweetest by those who nair succeed
    To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need
    Not one of all the purple host who took the flag today
    Can tell the definition so clear of victory
    As he defeated, dying, on whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph break agonized and clear.”

    This was the finding in World War II when the Liberty ships were sunk. The old endured, the young drowned. Out of this experience was born Outward Bound. Without a mental toughness and resilient character developed through persistent difficulty and personal suffering, we will not have the resources necessary when called upon to make our stand. The “pursuit of happiness” has created a nation of whiners, victims, and wimps. This is detailed in Jean Twenge’s book, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

  4. It seems like we need to give ourselves permission to be sad, and yet rejoice in the LORD in our sadness.

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