Winter is a time to summon unfelt feelings from the rest of the year that we were too busy and bogged down to process. To make cozy, fragrant and airtight vessels of our homes, safe spaces to do emotional alchemy with our extra hours of darkness. To write, cook, dance, and make art in private. To get to clearing the backlog.
Sadness is often the first to arrive in still spaces. What I have learned from working with people who don’t know how to be sad—and from being a person for whom being sad well never came naturally—is that though there are millions of ways to bury sadness, it will always find a route to the surface.
Sometimes we can trace the origins of sadness back to something. It doesn’t really make us feel better, but it gives us a story to sink our teeth into. Meaning-making is an important part of healing, so I think the storyline does help. Other times, though, the weight of sadness rolls in unaccounted for, like a mysterious guest with burned off fingerprints making a crashpad of the body.
There’s a poem psychotherapists love to quote called “The Guest House,” by Rumi. It goes:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
I understand why therapists love this poem. It’s a useful way of thinking about sadness. I also like to think about my own sadness as a wave I must ride to have my joy again (Two of Pentacles).
Still there must be skills for feeling sadness well. In the study of habits, scientists have learned that pairing things we don’t like doing with things we do like doing makes the less pleasant of the two more doable (Two of Pentacles). If you don’t like meal prep, for example, you can listen to your favorite podcast while you do it to encourage the habit to form.
In thinking about feeling sadness as an action, I pair it with the actions of listening to Turkish string music, snuggling in my grandmother’s blanket, lighting beeswax candles, and setting fire to dried herbs and wood. This pairing of behaviors makes feeling sadness more doable. Sometimes the line between despair and pleasure gets blurred here.
If you really work at it, you could get so good at feeling sadness that it becomes like a comfort zone you then must coax yourself out of. Life is like that. A constant oscillation between the acquisition of comfort through competency and the challenge of mustering the courage to branch out into the unknown. To be clumsy with things we’re not yet good at for a while.
Some of us are not good at feeling sad, while joy is a much greater challenge for others. Our lives get small when we cling too tightly to the things we’ve established some skill in (Four of Pentacles). If you get good at feeling sad, or if you already are, just be careful that you don’t start to resist joy.
The Four of Pentacles card in Mike Medaglia’s Luna Sol tarot depicts a character gripping four pentacles, standing at the threshold of a doorway. Without a free hand to turn the knob, this person cannot pass through.
Maybe a life well-lived looks like a series of gathering up comforts and then being brave enough to put them down so we can turn the knob and move forward. The bravery is needed because we generally have no clue what’s on the other side of that door. We can keep our comforts, or we can grow. I’m not sure we can have both.
The good thing is that if we choose comfort when we are meant for growth, the comfort zone will get increasingly less comfortable, like a too-small shoe. With time a leap of faith begins to feel like the more desirable option. Sometimes it has to get to that point. I think that’s okay.
Comfort (Four of Pentacles) and security (King of Pentacles) are not the same. Security is what gives us the power to relinquish our comforts when it is time to. It is what lets us know that we are bigger and more powerful than our fear or anxiety or self-doubt. When we feel secure, we actually have a shot at being able to greet sadness, grief or rage at the door smiling.
Security is knowing that no thought or feeling is inherently dangerous. It is challenging the idea that our emotional “house guests” will barge in, thief our valuables and leave us for dead.
If you’re afraid of sadness you’re in trouble. Believe me. The fantasy that uncomfortable emotions will overpower us if we allow them through the door of consciousness is what keeps us stuck at the threshold, too weighted down to walk through the doors that can give us growth.
Everyone knows that sadness and grief are the price of admission for the experiences of joy and connection (Wheel of Fortune). Because the wheel turns, things go away. Dead leaves crumble off, but a tender nub is left for new life to grow. It makes a doorway for a bud to poke through. The wheel turns again, new life comes.
This winter may we be safe (Four of Swords) without lodging ourselves too tightly inside the spaces where we feel comfortable.
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