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  • Maura McCarley Torkildson

Can Sadness be Benevolent?


I drew a card this morning from my Fairy Oracle Deck to see what they had to say about Benevolent Sadness. It was a phrase that entered my thoughts during a recent women’s circle which included quite a bit of sharing about some of the trauma’s we had all faced at various times in our lives.

I drew the perfect card, which was the Oak Men (see pic). The Oak Man is looking at me with such compassion and yet you can feel the smile under the surface. What he tells me is there is joy and hope underneath the sadness. It feels benevolent. It is such a different thing from depression. Depression is no hope. Depression is oppressive feeling that nothing is ever going to work out, everything is horrible. It is the brain on the track of trauma, a brain that can’t get out of the cycle of the oppressive feeling of terror and being pressed down constantly, unable to take a breath, and of no joy, ever.

Truly depression is the negative mindset. It takes a real awakening to be able to shift one’s perspective from it, especially when traumatized and on the habitual track of negative thinking.

I asked myself, what created that negative mindset for me? I finally understand much of the hopelessness was injected into me by an ongoing stream of doctors after my diagnosis of Type I Diabetes at age thirteen. I was told, over and over and over again, you’re never going to get over this disease, if you don’t do what we tell you to do, you’re going to end up really sick. You are going to end up losing your legs, losing your sight, losing your kidneys. These words and the tone terrorized me. I felt hopeless because the message was never - you are never going to get out from under the oppressive reality of this disease and if you don’t do what we tell you to do, then you are going to be punished as a result (implying I deserved to be punished).

I learned the negative mindset through the constant repetition of interactions with physicians who erroneously thought they were doing the right thing. My defense tactic was to try to bypass my trauma and grief with, “Oh, well at least I don’t have cancer!” I also defended myself with rebellion.

It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to sort this out. I had a life-long cap on the my feelings about the trauma and grief around the diagnosis.

At the time of diagnosis, we were studying Greek mythology in school. I was particularly struck with the myth about Pandora and her box of evils. It resonated. In my mind, my pancreas was the stand in for that box. Terrified of what was in that box, I vowed to never open it. All my suppressed feelings went there. Is it any surprise my immune system turned on it?

This awareness about the trauma around my diagnoses has been hovering on the periphery. I’d been avoiding it. Looking at it now, I feel the inevitable sadness, but this sadness feels benevolent to me. If feels real, grounded, and manageable. It doesn’t feel hopeless. I can wrap the thirteen year old in my arms, love her and see her.

My thirteen year old was a troubled girl. She was diagnosed with this disease and in many ways I think she gave it to herself. In the first year of middle school, I became aware my classmate, Marcy, was diabetic. I became consumed with curiosity about diabetes. Somehow it was a trigger. There was an inner knowing that went along with finding out about Marcy – this disease was meant for me. Other autoimmune conditions were already present (psoriasis). Auto immune diseases are potent metaphors for trauma turned inward.

I haven’t quite untwisted that knot yet. For now I sit with my inner troubled thirteen year old. Her world was literally rocked by the entrance into middle school. The politics there were not a good place for her, for me. All I wanted was to belong. But I didn’t want to walk through the land mines which belonging created in middle school. I never knew if I divulged a secret to someone, if they would turn on me and share it with everyone.

Even wary self-protection was no panacea. I remember walking through the halls wearing a hand-me-down bra with puckered batting. Boys had all the power to define status. One boy spread the story I stuffed my bra to enhance my bosom. I was relentlessly ridiculed for weeks. Even though I knew the truth, I still felt the sting of shame. I couldn’t trust the girls either, they could turn on me if they saw advantage in doing so. No one stood up for me.

I consciously tried on meanness one time. I hurt one of my friends by whispering cruel things about her. I felt horrible afterwards, I burned my soul by trying to fit in, so I retreated. I was never meant for that kind of politics. I had no clue how to set boundaries, I had nowhere to turn, and I don’t remember trusting anyone.

I went into middle school with some spunk, even though the history of ridicule, shame was already there. Never-the-less, l went in aware I had talents. I was good at many things and very creative. But confidence had to be cauterized. The crime of confidence was called conceit. God forbid you should be conceited, especially of you were a girl, the price of such a crime was exclusion. This dicey world was the ground for my diagnosis.

Embracing all this now with compassion I feel sad, but that sadness is benevolent. I know that I am capable of bearing it. I know it will not last forever. I hold that thirteen year old who just wanted to be loved. She is loved - loved by me and by the people I choose to surrounded myself with. I have true friends. I can trust them with my vulnerability.

This sadness, it’s benevolent and full of hope.

Culturally we are horribly confused about the difference between sadness and depression. We think that sadness is depression. They are not the same. Our feelingscape is oppressed. We become terrified of sadness because we equate it with hopelessness. We turn it inward into depression .We create depression when we avoid our feelings.

What if we understood that sadness can be benevolent? What if as children we learned it was okay to be sad, that feeling sad was important to processing through the ups and downs in our life? What if that was the lesson instead of, don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve and don’t let anyone see your sadness or vulnerability. We learn we must protect other people from our feelings, particularly grief. Showing others we are sad is seen as an imposition. We assume others can’t or won’t witness our sadness? This is what happens in a world where feelings are oppressed. We can’t bear to make space for other people’s sadness, because it brings up our own. If we’ve been pressing our sadness down, it may feel like a tidal wave of feeling will drown us. Sadness makes us unbearably uncomfortable. We respond with advice or worse, total disregard. We make feeling unsafe. It threatens our belonging. We are terrified of our feelings more than anything else. Our terror of the future is a terror of how we will feel in our imagined catastrophes more than of the event itself.

Everything always comes back to safety. When we learn our own feelings are dangerous, other people’s feelings are too. When we don’t’ feel safe, when we protect ourselves and others from our feelings, we create depression and hopelessness. When we oppress sadness we can’t experience our joy either. What we create is a cynical, mean world no different than the mean world of adolescence.

In order to experience joy, we need to feel our full range of emotions. Joy is the smile behind the benevolent compassionate gaze of the Oak Man. Hope lies underneath all the ills in Pandora’s Box. The myth recounts hope stayed in the box when the lid was shut. My interpretation is that Pandora cultivated hope when she let the negative feelings out of the box. There was no denial that those feelings existed. She didn’t pretend she didn’t have them. She opened the box, allowed the negative feelings to escape and found hope at the bottom. My benevolent sadness includes hope underneath.


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