Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Denying Sadness


I am convinced that stoicism is never the answer to anything, being nothing more than a cruel, callous encouragement to people to devour each other, a powerful ally of sadists and tyrants keen to get people to endure things which should be firmly refused as unendurable. Courage, indeed!
--Les Murray, Killing the Black Dog

Through my countless hours of idle contemplation I became aware of one simple fact. We do not talk about sadness. Anyone who talks about it is seen as whiny and unpleasant to be with. We discourage expressions of sadness with nonsense about Getting a Grip on Yourself. “Emo” is used as a derogatory term. Nobody wants to hear about your dead aunt or mother or brother, and you don’t want to bring it up for the fear of burdening your friends. But has this always been the case? Is it our nature to frown upon talking about sadness? Or maybe this is a socially constructed norm that we all just grown accustomed to, like our obsession with individualism? Somewhere in Abraham Lincoln’s biography I read that in his days showing inner angst was the equivalent of getting a six-pack. So what has changed since then that stigmatized sadness?
There are 50 percent more suicides than homicides in the U.S. Most people get these numbers switched. This is partly because of the mis- and underreporting of suicide by the media, mostly due to coverage leading to copycat suicides. This ignorance prevents the society from addressing the problem of mental illness and perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. It seems that people are in denial of all the sadness in the world. They consciously, and often even craftily and pertinaciously, refuse to face the reality that surrounds them. The suicide rates, the prevalence of illness, poverty, and inequality are just a few of the plethora of issues that cause people their lives, and, probably even more importantly, the quality of their lives. But if there is so much suffering in the world, why do we often overlook it? In another book I read that the self-conscious mind makes up only about five percent of our thoughts. If that is true, then that means that 95 percent of our decisions, actions, and behaviors are the result of something wholly out of our control, the subconscious mind. So maybe avoiding sadness is a built-in defense mechanism that protects us against overwhelming thoughts of pain. After all, denial is the first stage in the five stages of grief.
I think our society is in denial of sadness. We avoid the subject of suffering at all costs, and thereby make it taboo. This is because we have not developed coping mechanisms, and simply do not know how to address and deal with the reality of death. We even put make up on the dead to make them seem life-like, as if they are only going into a long sleep. Or maybe we can’t yet accept that suicide is a part of our society. Newspapers underreport suicide for fear of rebuke by family members devastated by guilt and shame. Maybe yet it is anger that we are afraid of. We suppress anger for fear of getting labeled as someone with anger-management issues. We escape and reject pain at all cost. We praise those who go through pain without complaining, because pain is seen as weakness. We say things like "just snap out of it" and "pull yourself by the straps", which are cruel and hurtful, especially to somebody suffering from depression who has no control over his illness. And sadness; well, we brush it underneath our beds because we are too busy being preoccupied with being positive and optimistic all the time. If you talk to a random sample of people in our society, or look at a random sample of profile pictures, you would think we are the happiest people on earth. However, the rates of mental illness and suicide in America are bigger than those in any other industrialized country.
We make the topic of sadness taboo, making it impossible for someone to discuss feeling a healthy dose of sadness with anyone else. We perpetuate these fears by social norms, such as everyone telling us that being sad is somehow a weakness and that we should be calling 5150 if someone even mentions the word suicide. We what message are we sending them other than “under no circumstances talk about sadness or people will think you are crazy.” So people never do, and one day they are gone without even saying goodbye, and you wonder how can it be. So talk, talk, talk about sadness, suicide, depression, about your inevitable death, which could come at any moment and under any circumstances, and about feelings of sadness and melancholy. Because by sharing sadness with your friends, you are letting them know that when they are going through hard times they are not alone.

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