Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sadness is an Underrated Emotion

Image by Cynthia Changyit Levin
When was the last time you had a really good cry? Did you tell people about it? Did you take a selfie your sad face? Of course not. In our happy-driven society (#100DaysOfHappiness, anyone?), can we create a useful space for sadness? Can being sad actually help our ability to shape our world? I think "yes," if we allow ourselves to listen to our sadness. 

The negative emotion of sadness is an feeling which - carefully cultivated - can lead us to postive, powerful actions. Like anger, a common catalyst for social change and justice, it's quieter cousin is often at the beginning of our awareness that change is needed. If we're not dwelling endlessly in it, sadness can motivate us to rectify a bad situation. We know we don't want to feel that way. We don't want other people to feel that way. So...we do something about it. We pick up the baby who cries. We comfort those who are hurting. We help.

Sadness is our indication - our admission, even - that something is very wrong. And as we work through our grief, sadness organizes our mind. Crying - and I mean a good, solid, sobbing cry with stuff coming out of your nose - is a cathartic tool our minds can use to clear a path for useful thought. And a clear thought path is a very, very useful thing for an activist mom fighting for the lives of children.

Image: "Inside Out" by Disney/Pixar
This summer's Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out treated us to a thoughtful allegory reminding kids and adults how healthy sadness can be. The emotion of Sadness is characterized by an unassuming, little blue character who shows her true worth when things are falling apart for the 11-year-old girl she helps control. The character of Sadness at her best shows compassion and finds solutions. Sadness calls attention to the things that are wrong in life and helps us deal with them...usually by starting with a good cry.

After the crying subsides comes a critical moment: the balance point of when we either slip into hopelessness or get down to the real work of changing the world around us. We can dry our eyes, blow our noses, and look at the problem with new clarity and sense of purpose. This tipping point leads to either action or acceptance that things are never going to change. It is a vulnerable time. The difference between these two reactions can have a lot to do with who is around us to help pick us up after we fall. Can we find supportive family, friends, and allies to help us move forward?

At a 2013 Clinton Global Initiative panel, Khalida Brohi - a Pakistani activist who founded the Sughar Empowerment Society at the age of 16 - spoke of how her father taught her to turn from frustration and sadness to action:

"Growing up I've cried a lot, a lot...I saw my cousins getting married very early age 9 years 11 years of age. My mom was married at 9 years of age. I saw my aunties and neighborhood women being beaten. I saw things happening and I could not make sense of it. I could only cry. I would go and hide myself in the house and I would cry and cry. But a lot of times I would cry in my father's arms and he would actually say something to me that I would always remember. Whenever I ran to my home and just hugged him and cried, he would say: "Khadila, my dear...

Don't cry. Strategize." 
Khadila Brohi with Bono. Image: AFP
And strategize she did. Her non-profit which takes it's name from a word meaning "skilled and confident woman" equips women in rural Pakistan with skills and resources necessary for economic and personal growth. Women from over 20 villages use embroidery skills to create fashionable products and sustain a small company. Even though Khalida's father did say "Don't cry," I don't believe he wanted to negate her emotion. He was an empowering influence guiding her to re-direct her negativity into positive social change.

As an activist, I sometimes get out of touch with my own sadness. Doing this kind of activism every day, I kind of have to be to some extent. I build up a wall to keep moving through the terrible stories and statistics routinely coming through my in-box. But it's a mistake to be completely out of touch. 

There are moments when a certain personal story tears my walls down, reduces me to tears, and ultimately makes me a better activist. One such moment came when I was listening to Raj Shah - then director of USAID - give a luncheon speech in Chicago. He spoke of horrible statistics of child mortality and malnutrition, all familiar to me. Then, he showed a picture of a trip to a refugee camp and related the story of a mother who travelled many miles to bring her child to the camp where he received life-saving care. It was an uplifting story. But then he called our attention to something in the background of the photo. At the time, he'd thought it was a pile of blankets. Instead, it was revealed that the small bundle of material actually concealed her other child who had not survived the journey. This mother had to literally put her dead child behind her in order to care for her surviving boy and talk to a visiting American to help her people get the aid they need to survive.

I broke.

I broke in a big, fantastic way with tears and removal of myself from the room. When my dam  explodes, there is a lot of salt water behind it. I cried and I didn't truly stop crying until later that night when I had a work call with RESULTS volunteer, Beth Wilson. In the midst of our work, I told her what was going on that day and wept for that child and all the children we haven't been able to reach with our advocacy and aid. She listened with great understanding and helped me re-commit myself to our work with a greater sense of urgency than existed the moment before I saw the picture.

So, the next time you break down, I hope you will take the time to listen to yourself about what is causing the tears. Seek out others who are willing to listen and support. And, finally, say to yourself with compassion and understanding, "Don't cry. Strategize."