Sadness is something we shun. We shrink from the grieving as if their condition was contagious, and we implore the depressed to ‘cheer up’. In fear of the spectre of sadness, we embrace mindfulness, cheerfulness, and above all, happiness.
Yet, when sadness is reflected in someone else’s words, it is a different matter. The sadness we hear in music, literature and film is strangely irresistible, and something we seek.
The hundreds of thousands of people who attended Adele’s Australian concerts in recent weeks testified to the strange pull of sadness. At the concert, Adele herself recognised the attraction of pain when she said that she would get some upbeat songs out of the way so we could all sob together.
I was not immune to the charms of the sad words that Adele writes and sings so well. During When We Were YoungI stifled sobs, and at the end, when asked which song was my favourite, it was the one that jumped to mind.
“Let me photograph you in this light
In case it is the last time
That we might be exactly like we were
Before we realised
We were sad of getting old”
Excuse me for a moment while I grab a hankie.
Then there was the gorgeously sad Don’t You Remember, and many concert-goers’ highlight, Someone Like You, detailing a terribly painful breakup that Adele went through when she was 21. As her voice cracks in remembered pain and the crowd sighs in bliss.
There is something heartening about wallowing in the sadness of someone else’s words. And somehow, certain singers or songwriters capture that sadness and repackage it to make it the audiences’ own. Sam Smith did it to perfection in I’m Not the Only One and years earlier Bette Midler did in Wind Beneath My Wings and Crying by Roy Orbison (just thinking about these songs makes my breath catch a little). I’ll never forget hearing Lightening Crashes during a funeral, and the way it seemed to clear the way for an outpouring of sobs among the mourners.
Sadness is also a key component of some of the most memorable books I have read. I recently finished a book throughout which was a constant undercurrent of sadness. While not ostensibly sad, in Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout explored the bittersweet nature of life, love and ageing, of losing a beloved husband to a long, drawn out process of dying, or of coping with the evil deed of a son. It made me ponder death, illness, ageing and disappointment, yet I loved it.
Similarly, one of my favourite books was one of the saddest I have read. The ending of We Need to Talk About Kevin came as a bitter shock to me, so much so that I cried. While I enjoyed exploring the issues of motherhood and of good and evil, nature or nurture, that it addressed, it was the sadness that I found the most satisfying.
Two of the most memorable books of my early years were Bridge to Terabithia and I Came Back to Show You I Can Fly, books that spoke of death and loss in a way that I had never experienced in my own life.
The God of Small Things was poignant and heartbreaking, as was A Fine Balance. Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Charlotte’s Web; so much glorious literary sadness. Even Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss sometimes ignites a sense of the sad fleeting preciousness of life in me, that can cause me to shed a tear if read at a time when I’m feeling particularly fragile.
I have written before about how to decide whether a book is ‘good’ or not, and perhaps a sign of the best books is not a neat, happy ending, but a sad one.
Writers and singers have long recognised the value of sadness, or melancholy, which Victor Hugo defined as “’the happiness of being sad”.
Singer Dionne Warwick whose own song Walk on By was heartbreaking, said, “Crying is cleansing. There’s a reason for tears, happiness or sadness.”
So, what is it about sad words, whether in songs, books or movies, that is so appealing? Is it the chance they offer us to plumb the depths of sadness, without risking experiencing that sadness ourselves?
It feels like they provide us with a place of safety from which to imagine, reflect and wallow. I wonder whether this might also be a way for people to ‘practice’ sadness at a safe distance, to imagine what it would be like to lose someone close to us, cope with difficulty or face death.
In some way, it is reassuring to walk some way towards sadness, with the ability to withdraw without throwing ourselves over the abyss of experiencing it ourselves.
Another way in which the experience of sadness at a distance can help make us happy is by helping us feel grateful that we are not in the same position as the protagonist. As readers or listeners, we have the good fortune of being warned of what might happen, which enables us to appreciate what we do have. It is a little warning to ensure that it does not take a disaster of some kind to recognise how lucky we were when healthy or uninjured.
Maybe we are all just yearning to be moved in some way – whether by joy or sadness. In a world in which emotions are a private affair, tucked neatly away in the cupboard and rarely aired, perhaps we all just want a good, satisfying cry. While we might flee sadness in our lives, perhaps there is some recognition of its value.
Writer Herman Hesse might have been suggesting this role of sadness when he wrote, “I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and disfigure us.”
Or perhaps the beauty of sadness in song and literature lies in its ability to help us feel less alone in our own sadness. If Adele has coped with the sadness that inspired her songs, I might, too. If others have faced tragedy and lived on, maybe it is possible for others to do the same.
After all, books, music and film provide precious insight into the hearts of others, which might even reflect our own. Most human emotions are present in song or story, however personal and unique our own heartache might feel.
And so, while we indulge in the pastime of our age of chasing happiness, it might sometimes be in sadness that some kind of comfort, understanding, and even joy, can be found.