Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.
A few months ago I watched Inside Out, Disney’s latest offering. It was a beautiful little film, full of cute lines and brilliant animation. But the real triumph of the movie was its clever and insightful portrayal of human emotion. In telling the story of a little girl feeling displaced by her family’s move to a strange city, the film gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of our emotional lives, and the ways in which different feelings interact to shape our responses and experiences. (In the movie, the girl’s feelings are actual characters, living inside her mind.) Two things stood out for me. First, although joy is the natural leader and the one all the others tend to follow, it is sadness who really saves the day. Her quiet and sometimes faltering actions are what ultimately create equilibrium, after the little girl runs away from her new home, overwhelmed by her sense of loss and anger. Second, it is in integrating her emotions, not in trying to overcome sadness with joy, that the girl moves into a new season of maturity and connection with her parents. The story resonated with much of the thinking that has been forming in my own mind, especially over the last year.
I have spent much of my life wrestling with a heaviness of spirit. It has been such hard work, like the proverbial pushing of water uphill. This morning someone reminded me that whatever you focus on, is what will grow bigger. Such a simple truth, so self-evident, and yet so easy to forget when my thoughts and emotions pull me into a kind of feedback loop in my brain. Last year, I spent some time with a woman who encouraged me to be curious. Instead of simply trying to change my thoughts or feelings, she said, why not look at them as information, with curiosity. It was such an important shift to make. It infused the process with a lightness and gentle distance that enabled me to look more objectively at things. It also helped me to let go of some of the judgement that only added to my sense of being stuck. I began to see sadness as an ally, as something to be acknowledged and expressed. I found in the process that I have been more open to joy. It’s been such a revelation.
Part of what I have learned is that I am grieving. I am grieving losses and disappointments. I am grieving as I let go of the old relationship with my sons. I am allowing myself to cry and welcome the sadness that comes with daily hurts, both big and small. And as I do, I feel a kind of inner expansion and space. Grieving is a cleansing emotion. It’s so easy to rush to what I “should” be feeling, the sense of balance and peace on the other side of the sadness. But it never comes without entering into the sadness first. Sorrow is a release that opens the door to joy.
It takes so much energy to keep back the pain, to hold the broken pieces together. It turns me in on myself, so that I can no longer appreciate the light all around me. But when I allow grief to do its work, and I am emptied of the “rotten roots”, as Rumi calls them, then I notice things. I see the dewdrop in the centre of the Echeveria outside my kitchen door. I am aware of the scent of water on wet earth when it rains. And these simple things become echoes of deeper joys.