See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

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Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .

Sad People

“Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.
‘Pathetic,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is. Pathetic.’
He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
‘As I thought,’ he said. ‘No better from THIS side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.’
There was a crackling noise in the bracken behind him, and out came Pooh.
‘Good morning, Eeyore,’ said Pooh.
‘Good morning, Pooh Bear,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘If it IS a good morning,’ he said. ‘Which I doubt,’ said he.
‘Why, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Can’t all WHAT?’ said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
‘Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. …I’m not complaining, but There It Is.'”
~ A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know if I’m a “sad” person. I’m figuring that out. I think I have been sad a lot. But I don’t know if I’m a Sad Person.

I have had stretches in my life full of everyday giddiness, high on life, can’t-stop-smiling, can’t-stop-laughing. Like life was one constant summer evening drive with the windows down. In fact, “happy” used to be the word I’d always, always use to describe myself. It was my identity.

I definitely am not always a Happy Person, though. At least not these days.

Do you think you HAVE to be a Happy Person? SHOULDN’T be a Sad Person? Maybe you’re a both. (That sounds pretty human.) What is YOUR relationship with sadness?

There is something to be said, to be acknowledged and understood, about sadness and sad people. They’re there, they’re real. I don’t know why some are mostly sadder and some are mostly happier. And like I said, I don’t know which one I am or if I’m right in the middle. Maybe that will change every year. Maybe one day it will stay one or the other. But I think the world is a better place when we acknowledge and see and accept that some people are Sad People.

I stumbled upon this little moment in a Ray Bradbury story this year, and it spoke to me, a little too directly:

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

I’d like to share a little bit of my story with sadness, because I want to tell you a few things I know about sad people.

My journey with sadness must have started very young. Maybe, like Ray Bradbury said, “no special reason.” I just remember hearing when I was growing up that I had always been a very anxious little kid. Always afraid, crying lots. Having deep, sad thoughts.

I remember as a 7-year-old having very real fears that my siblings and I must not be real Christians because we were always fighting and being mean. I tried to have a sort of one-kid intervention about it, where I made a big pronouncement of doom and despair with my 7-year-old voice, trying to be heard over all the kids-fighting-because-they’re-kids noise in the back of the station wagon, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

I sucked my thumb and slept with stuffed animals for a lot longer than was normal “for a boy” (which is a dangerous phrase). I always felt afraid and I always felt a desperate need for safety, for assurance, for comfort. I still have my tigers Jack and Dakota and Sebastian, and when I find them once in a while on my closet shelf I feel a “better” type feeling, like when I hugged them close as a kid. I hugged them a lot because I needed love and I needed safety. I had this nightmare when I was only several years old that spoke so strongly of my day-to-day fears that I can still replay the nightmare to this day: Out on a family walk in Chattanooga, I’d fall behind, my family would round a bend, and gypsies would jump out of the woods and steal me away to be their own child. (I don’t know where I learned about gypsies.)

We moved to Florida. A lot of times I couldn’t sleep. My mom found me sitting on the stairs. I explained, when she asked what was wrong, that I was just so worried about getting spinal meningitis or small pox and dying. I shared a room with a brother and two sisters, and we would stay awake planning how we could protect ourselves if a bad person broke into the house while dad and mom were away. I knew where my granddad’s Japanese WWII sword was. Swords were my thing. At first I would draw swords and then eventually I’d make swords out of old broom handles and duct tape and then one day a deacon at church said he had a jigsaw and would love to help me carve the swords so I dreamed them up and drew the outlines on old bed slats and I brought them to him and it was a good day but he also was a little rough around the edges and said some unkind words to me and it scared me and it made me sad but when I got home I had my swords. My favorite sword was a beautiful little one. Duct tape wrapped around two pencils gave the handle a handle-shape and I think I painted a red jewel on the bottom. One time I was “fooling around” with it while the family read out loud for school, so my mom told me to bring it to her, and I asked her to please, please, please not spank me with it, because I was afraid it would break, and it was my favorite sword, but she spanked me with it, and my sword broke. And I was a kind of sad-in-every-way that lasted a long, long time.

As a teenager I got sad about deeper things. Things like my imperfections. I thought it was good to beat myself up over my mistakes and my weaknesses, so I did, a lot. I felt lots of shame and stress and struggle. I worried so much about God. That wasn’t a new thing. When I was about 9 I had asked my dad how we could have gotten to the present if eternity stretched for all eternity into the past. We couldn’t have gotten to now, so it all must have started sometime, but how could God be God if he hadn’t stretched to eternity past? And who got God started? This was a deep, aching, upset-stomach kind of problem to me. But my dad explained that God is outside time, so I felt better and went back to worrying about getting kidnapped instead. In my teen years, the God fears got more complicated. How could I know that I had the right kind of faith? Not the “Lord, didn’t I know you?” only to hear God say “Depart from me, I never knew you!” kind of faith. I would lie awake night after night crying in bed, afraid of going to hell, imagining it, hoping against it, wondering, sick to my stomach. That fear never went all the way away. (“Perfect love drives out fear.” – 1 John 4:18)

If I had been my own parent and had believed in things like therapists and psychology, there was one year in particular that I would have brought kid-me to a professional. I had this awful thought where maybe God wasn’t real–and it all went downhill fast from there. For months and months and months, I could hardly eat, I could hardly sleep, I could hardly get out of bed. I couldn’t look people in the face, especially not the eyes. I truly could not smile and people commented on it. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t be happy. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t see straight, sometimes. I felt like I was walking in a tunnel. I felt like I was floating away on the outside, looking in at all the peopleish people who knew how to be people, while I was dying in my heart, desperately waiting for the world to make sense again, waiting for a thing to hold onto. I was lost and scared. All of the happy and fun things were not happy and not fun anymore. At all. Every day was awful. Every single day. For the better part of a year. It was so dark. I would shut myself in my bedroom and cry for most of every day. Think, worry, and cry. That was my life for quite a while. I was a Sad Person in a big needs-help kind of way.

In my late teen years, my sadness turned mostly toward love-stuff. Cute-girl love but also family love and friendship love and world peace love and all the feel-good stuff that we celebrate on a day like Christmas, the day I find myself writing this. I felt deeply lonely and sad about not having a lot of friends, about never really learning to have friends or to be around other people who were different from me. I felt stuck in a place where I couldn’t feel much love, and every day it felt heavy and lonely and yucky and sad. As an 18-year-old I would covertly bypass our burglar alarm so that I could sneak out of my window to take walks alone in the dark. It felt like a little bit of freedom, getting to just be me. There were really rough times where I felt like I had lost so much love and support and friendship. Where I felt like I had been rejected by almost everyone, left completely alone, broken, to navigate life by myself. I needed love, but I couldn’t trust.

Eventually I claimed the freedom to go do my life the way I wanted. Unfortunately, that freedom coincided with an unrequited-love time, and juggling that and an 18-year-long scar of sadness got really, really dark.

But then, fairly randomly I think, I learned how to be happy.

I found real, huge, giddy, outrageously GOOD happiness! And honestly, I had experienced lots of happy things or happy corners-of-life in my childhood. Playing baseball in my backyard, feeling like a world traveler as I caught a plane and the MARTA to escape to my loving friends in Atlanta, and playing all the happy songs on the piano, like Linus and Lucy. But lots, I’d play the sad songs, too. Finally, as a young adult, the sad songs started slipping into memory and every day started bursting with happiness. A beautiful girl named Lyssi. Cheese and other yummy foods not as worthy of mention as cheese. Epic movies to see. Sketch pads. A fresh, cool breeze rushing by as I ran for miles and miles. My own car to adventure in. People who were there for me and the chance to be there for people. Kind words. Hugs. Purpose, excitement, confidence, and giddy, giddy, giddy happiness.

And then more weird life things happened that shook me pretty deep and brought me back to the pretty constant hum of worry and stress and fear and doubt and sadness. Several years swung back and forth pretty regularly–actually probably pretty healthily–between being generally stressed and generally happy. I wasn’t a Sad Person, but I wasn’t the Happy Person I had been, either.

Then one summer, over a year ago now, two things happened that shook a lot of Sad loose from deep inside my heart. First, I took a trip and saw some people whom it should have been wonderful to see, and saw a bunch more people who were once my tribe. And it was not good. It was not good at all. It was hard and sad and heavy and frustrating and a little bit gross. After that trip I came back to the happy-home I had found the freedom to make, but I couldn’t shake the hurt. For months after that trip I would wake up almost every night sweating, shaking, panting, having nightmares about the sad stuff I thought I had left safely behind in my childhood. Trust started becoming hard again. I started feeling sensitive and oh-so-protective. Second that summer (and I’ve written lots about this before) I bonked my head way too hard hiking in the Colorado Rockies and I knocked even more feelings loose. If you’ve ever had a concussion or known someone who has, you might know a frequent effect is intense anxiety and emotional lows. Like “I’m crying and I don’t know why” twenty times a day. This time around for me, the emotional lows were there again, but the anxiety was so present and so forceful, I could hardly make it through the day. I became weirdly mistrusting of everything and everyone, and I constantly felt that at the next moment my whole world might come crashing down. The concussion effect on my brain lasted a surprisingly long time, especially the anxiety. But by the time I felt probably-back-to-normal, so much Sad had been shaken loose that I felt like a significantly different person than I’d been before the ordeal.

Since then, I’ve dealt with a weird and tough stretch. Over a year feeling the loss of a lot of things I had, feeling the loss of a lot of things I thought I had, figuring out stuff that many people get to figure out as a kid, like how to be angry or how to be mad or how to love someone and yourself at the same time. Thank god for therapy. When my wife asked me a few days ago who had made the biggest impact on me this year, without a second thought I knew it was the therapist I’ve been seeing. I think it’s all going to be okay. Turns out, people get anxious. Some people get anxious a lot, like to the point where you could say they “have” it. And it turns out I’m some people.

And as someone who understands the anxiety and the sadness stuff a little better now than I used to, I’ve gotten to look back and read a bunch of journals and letters from when I was a teenager and a young adult. And oh my goodness, they are DARK. Just heart-breaking. I was a deeply, deeply sad and anxious person.

And then I was a super happy-go-lucky person.

And now I’ve had a pretty sad year or two.

But I’m still so happy a lot. It’s just I’m also so sad a lot. These days, probably more sad. That’s okay right now.

And honestly, knowing all this history, I still don’t really “get” exactly how my sadness works. It’s still confusing. It’s still weird. It still acts in unexpected ways. It’s still “emotional” and acts like it. And then when I think I’ve made sense of it and suddenly it doesn’t make sense again, I keep coming back to Ray Bradbury’s words: “No special reason. . . .”

As someone who’s been a Happy Person and a Sad Person, I want to share a few things, things that I hope will make you feel some mix of not-alone-in-your-sadness and inspired-to-be-a-good-friend-to-sad-people.

First, I understand why my therapist teased that I’d be thankful for my concussion that shook loose the sadness and anxiety deep in my heart. Life is actually better when I see and accept and work with those feelings.

Second, again my therapist, he told me he doesn’t wish people lives of abundant happiness, just abundance. Abundant everything. Some days that means deep happiness. Some days it means deep love. Some days it means deep excitement. And some days–some days it means deep sadness.

Third, go see a therapist. From the bits and pieces of psychology I’ve learned, I know Ray Bradbury’s not wrong: Some people are just sad without a clear cause that therapy can fix. And it’s good for your mix of emotions to include sadness. But, there is a lot of deep, constant, unnecessary sadness that a therapist might be able to help you with. You never know till you try. For me, it’s been life saving.

Fourth, you probably should not always be happy. (Not like “please stop being happy,” but just a warning from my personal experience that, I think, if you think you’re always happy, you might need to check on yourself a bit more, a bit deeper.) You should be happy and sad and mad and scared sometimes. There are good reasons to feel all of those and all of those are normal feelings. It is a lot of pressure to tell yourself (or to tell others, or to let others tell you) that you should always be happy.

Fifth, sad people aren’t bad people who are causing problems by being sad. Many sad people learn to take care of their feelings without taking them out on other people. Mr. Rogers–Fred Rogers–said in an interview that he learned to express his angry and sad feelings through his fingers on the piano.

Sixth, and closely related, if you’re the sad one, you really can learn how to be sad in a healthy way. I’ve learned that it is okay to be sad. Sometimes the things that made you sad aren’t okay, like when you’ve been abused or bullied. And some outlets you might find for your sad feelings aren’t okay, like abusing or bullying others. But you can have healthy sadness.

Seventh, please don’t judge sad people as somehow worse, defective, rain-clouds, melodramatic, silly, not-good-enough, their-own-fault, all the blamey and rejecty labels. Each person has a story you don’t know. People have such long, complex stories! If we’re being honest, we probably don’t really know our own stories all the way. When you see someone–someone who looks sad, who looks like their life is a hard one–please find some compassion. And if you’re a sad person, same goes–please don’t judge yourself for it.

Eighth, please don’t decide for people who they are. Don’t label them as officially happy or officially sad in your book. People are people and life gets weird. When you decide for someone that they’re a Sad Person, you only make it harder. Harder for them to freely express the happy moments, harder for them to ask for support, harder for them to feel appreciated and loved, and honestly harder for them to move towards more happiness. Just as importantly, please don’t decide for someone that they’re a Happy Person. When someone knows that they are, to you, dependably happy, positive, always encouraging and inspiring and energetic and enthusiastic, it becomes an unrealistic burden. Such a burden that when sad times do come, they can’t talk about it. They can’t share. Because too many people are counting on them to not be sad. So please just don’t treat people like they’re a “Sad Person” or a “Happy Person.” Don’t set those expectations. Don’t put that pressure. Don’t plant that guilt. Just let people be people and meet them where they are, every day. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people can’t be summed up in a nutshell, pre-determined, dependably defined by a set of 4 letters, because humans can change, suddenly and drastically, and they can grow, and they will surprise you. “Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Ninth, let people be sad. Let yourself be sad. Sad is okay.

And tenth, love sad people. Instead of trying to fix them (god knows if they can’t, you can’t), love them. Instead of pressuring or guilting them or trying to change their minds, love them. Instead of tiptoeing around them on eggshells, get in the messy feelings world with them and LOVE THEM. If anything, anything, anything will ever help a Sad Person find a little more happy, it will be love. But honestly? Don’t let changing or helping them be your goal. Just love them for them, period. And if you’re sad? Love others and get love. Ask for it. Talk about it. Accept it. Trust it. Feel it. And love yourself. You are sad, but you are beautiful.

P.S. Please remember that there are more Sad People than you think. Many people–maybe most people–have learned not to talk about their sadness. Not to cry. Not to share. Some not even to think about their sadness, when they can help it. Many have learned to smile, to be excited, to have fun, to be energetic, and still, just under the surface, there is an ache. Sometimes the biggest smiles hide the deepest aches. So remember that there are many more than you think there are. And remember that they’ve learned, a lot of them, that they’re not allowed to tell you they’re sad.

P.P.S. Also, let’s all do our part in making honesty and vulnerability okay, even when that means tears. You with me? We’re all in this together.

P.P.P.S. I love putting an inspiring quote on a picture and placing it in my blog posts. And I was thinking, what could be a good, inspiring, positive message about sad people? And then I thought, why should it be positive and inspiring? Sad people are sad people. They’re there. They exist. They’re right next to us. They are us. And sometimes that, itself, just needs to be acknowledged and understood and accepted and made peace with. It should be okay.

Ray Bradbury - some people get sad young

Sadness Doesn’t Always Need a Solution

I crossed paths with a coyote a couple nights back. It was awesome! Bear with me while I take you through a weird train of thought I had. It trotted across a dark road and down the hill into a neighborhood. As I kept walking, I heard nearby dogs start barking loudly. I could see one of the dogs chained in its yard in the glow of a porch light. How sad would it be if the coyote attacked one of the barking dogs! It’s not unheard of in our area. What if I had a puppy that were killed by a coyote? What would I do about it? I’m sure I’d be sad and angry. I’d blame myself for leaving my dog unattended. I’d blame the city for not fixing its coyote problem. We live right next to a couple big nature and wildlife preserves and there are no fences keeping the coyotes in the preserve. Maybe I’d start a petition to put up some kind of protective fence along the preserve’s border. But–and here’s where it gets tricky–I probably have a neighbor who loves living here because of the closeness to nature and loves to see deer scamper through their yard. Lots of people would hate to have the preserve fenced off. And lots of people would not like the idea of forcing the wildlife to stay inside the preserve, thinking that’s cruel, unnecessary, unfair…

That was all hypothetical (though if someone were taking a vote I’d say no fence). What’s not hypothetical is that we tend to react to tragedies and sad events by looking for someone or something to blame and by trying to change something so that the event couldn’t happen again.

And what I wondered the other night is: Why do we do that?

And does it even help?

Is every sad thing a bad thing that should not have happened and that we should retaliate against and prevent ever happening again at all costs?

If someone you love falls from a cliff, should you stop hiking up beautiful mountains?

 

I think some of the things we do to try to stop any sad things from happening have their own sad effects in ways we don’t realize. Life isn’t all meant to be totally safe and free of bumps and bruises. Fearfully cowering in our homes means we miss out on a lot of happiness. Trying to get everyone to join us isn’t fair. Trying to organize the planet into safe boxes isn’t happy or beautiful. We can’t make life “perfect” and I think our striving to do so robs us of peace and love.

So when something very sad happens, before you “do something about it,” stop and think: Would it actually help? Or am I just making life more complicated and the world more bland for others? Think of all the frustrating and paralyzing rules and regulations that get made because one time something sad happened to someone.

 

And I think when we have to find someone to blame sad things on, we end up lonely and scared of the very people that could be there to hold our hands through our sadness. Sometimes a tragedy turns us angry and bitter against people who are close to us, or people that we wish could have somehow stopped the tragedy happening. So we call people evil and ugly and we become lonely and scared–and so we spread our loneliness and fear.

 

Sometimes we tell ourselves stories to lay blame elsewhere so that we can feel like the sad things happening is wrong, like it’s not a fair part of life, so it’s right for us to be angry: Like that all sad things are punishment for the world’s “sinfulness” and if only all those people weren’t the way they were… or that there’s an evil force who’s specifically targeting us for being so good–trying to trip us up. That can give us a boost of self-righteousness and courage to “overcome.” But it can also turn us against the rest of the world and it can catch us in a vicious cycle of obsessing over whether we’re good enough–when what we really needed was just a good cry.

 

And maybe when someone tells us they’re sad, they don’t need us to fix it.

 

Maybe sometimes we just need to feel the sad without having to blame anyone or do anything about it. The more time we spend in the initial stages of grief, lashing out in anger, trying to explain it away, insisting it shouldn’t and couldn’t have happened–the more we are hurt and broken and the more we hurt and break the world around us.

Maybe the fact that you’re sad doesn’t mean someone’s wronged you, or you’re living the wrong life, or you have the wrong people by your side, or the world is out to get you.

Maybe sad is a part of life we shouldn’t fight against.

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung

Don’t bring about more sadness by your reaction to your own sadness. Just shed some tears and let life be beautiful.

 

sadness - carl jung