When Sadness Meets Happiness |

3 min read
Mary Long/Shutterstock

Source: Mary Long/Shutterstock

A friend emigrated from a country torn apart by religious conflict, where conditions have grown worse since he left. We got together not to talk about the woes of his homeland but to discuss the horrific events in another part of the world.

Both of us are embedded in communities that work to promote pro-social values. We wanted to develop a strategy for responding to this crisis. Who could we bring together? What statement could we prepare? Which politicians should we contact?

Before meeting, we knew our efforts would amount to little because this problem was so enormous, long-standing, and complex. In the end, we had no plan. I was dejected; my friend seemed despondent. He looked and sounded defeated in a way I had never seen before. His shoulders slumped, his voice subdued, and the hint of a smile that he always wore was gone.

Later that week, we were to have a birthday dinner for two family members, and a few days after that, there was a gala honoring my wife Lyn’s volunteer work for promoting an arts council. Do I bring my feelings about the state of the world to these events? That seemed unfair to others who may not share my gloom. But what about me? Wasn’t it phony to put on a happy face in such unhappy times?

Then I remembered this personal anecdote:

Lyn was involved with a human rights group. One year, she attended the national convention and there met Sharon, a member of another chapter. Sharon, a pediatric oncology nurse, volunteered with the human rights group to work with torture victims who had found asylum in the U.S.

The conference, filled with lectures and workshops, ended with a party. My wife turned to Sharon and said, “We’re both here alone. I like to dance. Come on!”

Sharon declined. She said she couldn’t. With so much sorrow in the world, she had no right to be happy.

But isn’t it fun that she wants for the sick children she treats? Doesn’t she work with those who have been tortured so they can once again enjoy life?

Perhaps Sharon feared that her happiness would trivialize the pain of her patients. If she asked them, I bet they would disagree. She is no less worthy than them. Her demeanor could bring uplift to their lives. This wouldn’t be a distraction or reduce the seriousness of her work. Rather, she would model how compassion need not be the enemy of joy. A smile is also part of healing.

One other anecdote, this time from Rashi, an 11th-century rabbi, who wrote that if a funeral procession meets that of a wedding, it is the funeral that yields way and lets the wedding party pass.

Our lives are tangled with loss and love, tragedy and joy. We can’t let go of happiness, even in the saddest of times. Life is often lived as though in cycles. After winter, spring follows.

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