Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Does our Sorrow Define Us?

I was really struck by a blog post I read today at Time's Fool (recommended to me by Sarah Fain has Starfish Envy, one of my favorite blogs). It was a story about how we all get labeled by the tragedies we go through.

Especially in small towns, I can see how this happens. How somehow we become, "the girl whose dad died when she was 16", or "the girl whose parents had all those affairs," or "the girl whose dad was gay" or "the girl who accidentally got pregnant and had to get married," or "the girl whose dad went to jail for drugs." And even as adults in a larger world, sometimes we still get labeled by the hard things we've gone through, like "the one with the son with autism," or "the one who couldn't get pregnant," or "the single one," or "the one who lost her parents," or "the single mom."

What's interesting to me about the whole idea of labels, though, is that when I think back about people I know, these "sorrow labels" aren't something I think about in a derogatory way. Knowing that my friends have gone through sorrows makes me respect them, love them, more. How could you not love, "The one who cared for her mom while she was sick. The one who took charge of her family's situation when her dad passed away. The one who was brave enough to adopt even while she was single. The one who accepted her dad as a gay man. The one who learned how to teach her son with autism. The one who took her grandkids in when her daughter couldn't care for them. The one who worked three jobs to support her family after a divorce, and The one who never gave up hope for a child after years of infertility?"

The link between sorrow and happiness is complicated. But while I've been focusing on happiness most of the time on this blog, I don't want to discount the importance of tragedies in our lives, too. In my happiness interviews, that's one thing I've seen as a theme across many people's responses--that sadness can sometimes lead to happiness somehow. Maybe it's just relief from getting through a sad time. Maybe sadness opens us up somehow. Maybe it's that we develop greater empathy for others in a similar situation.

In any case, although I first recoiled at the thought that our sorrows might define us, I'm not so sure how I feel about the idea now. I'd much rather be defined by my happiness. But maybe that's impossible, or at least overly optimistic.

How do you think people would describe you in terms of a "sorrow label"? Do you feel strength or sadness from that now?

By the way, I also really like this post by Sarah Fain called "You Gotta Get Sad to Get Happy."


  1. For some time I was the one who's parents got a divorce and Dad was excommunicated during the process. Then I think it became the one who's sister died. Neither of those labels bothered me much. TJ,I like how you express how you see people with sorrow labels. There were a few who only saw me as the event that was defining me but I am more than that, and people knowing what I was going through made them more sensitive and respectful I think.
    Being happy after being sad: I think sadness at my sister dying went deeper than any other emotion that I'd had before. When I came out of the fog, I realized that I feel other emotions deeper now as well, awesome ones like happiness, but also negative ones like fear (not pleasant) It was like my soul 'went there' and paved the way for other aspects of my soul to go. How's that for a blog comment?

  2. PS the more time that passes from my sister's death, the less I am experiencing this effect of extremely deep happiness or fear after the sadness. And I am soooo okay with that. A mild amount of happiness is just fine with me. By most standards, I'm pretty darn happy. I don't need extreme happiness, probably because I equate it with extreme fear and sadness, which aren't worth it to me.

  3. I'm so glad you posted about your insights on this. And I know what you mean about mild happiness being okay. It's kind of like being sick, and then when you finally get well it's such an amazing & wonderful feeling to be well. But then after a while, you take that "well" feeling for granted. And that's when you know you're really better. I don't know if that makes sense, but to me, the high peaks and low valleys are stressful, and an even keel of happiness is much more comfortable. (But then again, bipolar d/o runs in my family, so maybe it's just that I equate big shifts in mood with something scary.) How's that for a follow-up blog post? :)