By Jack Canfora
As I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams I found myself transformed in my bed into a gigantic insect.
No. Nope. Wait. Sorry, that wasn’t me. It was Gregor Samsa. Not me. I’m constantly getting the two of us confused. It’s led to some pretty wacky situations, as you can well imagine. But more on that another time. No, I awoke this morning covered in a grey, heavy blanket of sadness. I really ought to invest in more cheerful bedding.
To be clear: when I say sadness, I most emphatically DO NOT mean Depression, which is its own animal. Not totally unlike sadness, to be sure, but a largely different taxonomy. I’ve wrestled with Depression ever since I can remember, and no doubt I’ll be oversharing with you all in subsequent posts about it in painfully granular detail.
Sadness, however, is a little different. I felt it gather its own dark momentum early in the day, and I could see its approach like a storm front (a trait it shares with Depression), so I set about trying to board up the windows of my mind and stack the sand bags of my soul against the approaching maelstrom (btw: this sentence has made it to the semi-final round of most pretentiously overwrought metaphor of 2020. So, fingers crossed!)
I began by thinking of things that made me happy, specifically, art and music. For the purposes of this post, I’m leaving out my family, friends, children, and dog, all of whom often bring me deep and abiding joy. I started a mental list of artistic works that bright me joy: high, middle, and low brow varieties. Your mileage may vary.
I started by thinking of comedy, I mean truly great comedy, which for me includes (but is not limited to): Monty Python (The Fish Slapping Dance, The Argument Clinic, The Undertaker Sketch, the two confused guards in The Holy Grail) and too, too many others to count) who have reduced me to helpless gales of laughter more than almost anything I can think of.
While we’re at it, the same can be said for most of Fawlty Towers, The Simpsons, seasons 3-9 (virtually every moment pitch perfect), the first three seasons of Arrested Development, Much of 30 Rock, the Marx Brothers, the sight of Woody Allen playing cello in his high school marching band (I know, I know, I get it, but that image is about as funny as funny gets, regardless of its author – that’s another post), much of Neil Simon’s dialogue, Dorothy Parker’s witticisms, Mark Twain, the stand up comic Gary Gulman (seek him out. Now. In fact, why are you still reading?), much of George Carlin, the obscure (in America) British panel show “Would I Lie To You?” and so many, many others.
They say all comedy is based on anger. I think that’s a bit reductive but largely true. But it’s based very often on the anger we all feel. No great comedy has ever been written or performed by someone who has known nothing but an easy, smooth existence. And in that way, comedy binds us; we are less alone. It’s a campfire in the dark for us to gather round, and realize we’re never as alone as we think we are.
Look, for many of us, our factory setting “Life is good and worth living” switch was never turned on, and the world can feel immensely lonely and alienating. But what a loss it would be to lose comedy. Which wouldn’t exist without the frequent, ambient sadness that abounds for many of us.
A gifted few can and have brought a joy and feeling of warmth that we’d never have felt had we not known that loneliness to begin with. Would it by worth the trade off? All that joy and genius in exchange for simply feeling “OK” most of the time? Not for me.
And then there’s that rare kind of art that invites you into its sadness. It insists you sit with it and share in it. A little something the Greeks called Catharsis. For me, that’s most of Van Gogh’s work, Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits’ “Martha” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and “Julia” (among a hundred others).
In literature, for me, it’s the last few pages of Joyce’s “The Dead,” Mary Tyrone’s final monologue in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, most of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, King Lear bringing in Cordelia’s lifeless body, all of Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, especially its transcendent and simultaneously heart-lifting and breaking coda.
It’s the last few pages of The Great Gatsby or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The final monologue from Uncle Vanya. Too, too many for me to recall or repeat. In an odd way, the older works and their dissection of human suffering makes me feel more connected to the past, and comforted that our sadness is not a recent event; it’s rooted at the heart of our species. All the works I mentioned draw out the precious and terrible gift of empathy within me (and I think others, too).
That’s yet another campfire in the wilderness. We huddle close and get to see into each other’s innermost fears and heartaches, and rather than have it repulse or scare us, we feel more kindred. In this way, we owe sadness an unpayable debt. It may be our truest, deepest, surest way of knowing one another.
My list, of course, is as subjective as subjective gets. But, for me, it’s always worth reminding myself that sadness, while obviously not a thing to seek out, visits us all. And though in those moments we can’t wait for it to leave, just think of all that genius, joy, and connection we’d lose, too.
For me anyway, I have to remind myself, nowhere near worth it.