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Life Magazine recently featured Diana, Princess of Wales on the cover, in a morbid tribute to her 50th birthday—of course, if she had only lived. What struck me, besides the inappropriate attempt to make money from a lost icon, was the profound sadness of Diana in the picture; see below.
The People’s Princess, as she wanted to be known, was far from joyous as she sat for this regal portrait. Her countenance stands in stark contrast from the youthful and at times, frivolous image that we saw of the young aristocrat whom Charles chose. But the good news out of this sad state of affairs is that the torment Diana suffered from her husband’s infidelity and neglect deepened her heart. Sadness, if we can face it, can do the same for all of us. That’s why I want to salute one of the bleakest of emotions.
When we face the facts of suffering and loss, it turns our attention to others. It also shuts off the hierarchical, judgmental, nature to which we are so prone. Emotional pain opens our eyes and hearts to others’ pain. And if we feel empathy, we can then be compassionate and a force for relieving that pain. And I choose the word “force” deliberately. Aiding others can give you great power because it is in our very nature to support those who do.
And if you face sadness—yours as well as that of others—it can give you great gratification. Firefighters and other rescue workers get a high from helping others. Doctors and nurses in emergency rooms often thrive in their grueling day-to-day struggle with death. Facing great sadness reminds you to appreciate your own good fortune.
And most profound, helping and grieving with others can put you in the path of transcendent moments. For Diana it must have been that way with each land mine victim and AIDS patient.
My cousin Rachel Walton of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a hospice nurse who regularly has ‘peak’ experiences—moments where time is suspended and her work feels effortless. These are rare moments for most of us, and they are the kind that change one’s life. For Rachel they are regular, even weekly occurences. In her profound sensitivity to those who are dying and their grief-stricken loved ones, she “hears what needs to be heard and speaks what needs to be spoken.” She never assumes to know what a patient or his family needs before she enters a hospice room. She clears her mind and makes herself a receptacle for what needs to be voiced. “I have experiences where words and thoughts come through me that I don’t consciously think. I’m in the stream of something… I have moments of absolute joy—I think, ‘It’s so amazing that I get to be here with these people at this moment.’ And my heart gets so huge.”
So salute, sadness. Because periodic sorrow is not only real and ought to be faced, it deepens our hearts and makes us sympathetic, even empathetic, to others. It can also make us appreciative of our own relative lack of grief. And if we respond to sadness with compassion and bravery on behalf of others, then there are more moments of power, joy and even grace.
Donald Van de Mark
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