A few Saturdays ago, I felt a profound sadness I hadn’t ever experienced before. I’d had a few tough disagreements with friends, and I was caught in the pains of my freshest (and, perhaps, fifteenth) attempt to quit a tobacco product. Classes were about to begin, and I was already tired of them, papers and pages piling up in my exhausted mind. The grief of upcoming May goodbyes had started to grip me, and I was afraid of feeling lonely. And I had no idea where I would be living in a year. And I felt fat and tired after weeks of holiday indulgence. And I was truly homesick for the first time in ten years. So much pain to face. So much to do. So much resistance.
My eyes stung with tears, a volcano of anxiety, anger, frustration, and fear churning deep within and ready to erupt. This sadness, while startling in its immediate ferocity, had grown slowly over time, a culmination of factors that on their own might have gone unnoticed, but together formed a super villain poised to tear me apart with sharpened claws, firebombs, and a malicious sneer.
I’m a joyful guy. I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I did, and it was awful.
At some daily Masses, there isn’t a schedule to identify who will read from Scripture. Often, the person who sits nearest the book reads from it, which of course means that Jesuits like to strategically place themselves as far from the book as possible. Someone must do it, however, and if it has to be me, it’s more likely than not I won’t have a chance to pre-read. I just hope the spirit will guide my biblical proclamation that day. Others take the same strategy.
The day my sadness captured me, some unlucky Jesuit got up to read and it was the worst kind of scripture passage – an Old Testament diddy filled with proper nouns whose pronunciations are virtually unknown: Abiel, Zeror, Becorath, Aphiah. Gesundheit. The guy reading fought valiantly through the first wave of name gymnastics and showed no fear, no sign of defeat.
But eventually, he broke – his eyes scanned over the word ‘Shahlishah,’ an impossible test of his on-the-fly biblical name knowledge, a ridiculous word in spelling and sound. With a Jack Black-ian styled ejaculative joy, he paused for a split second, and then shouted ‘Shahlishah!’ without reservation. Laughter erupted from the congregation. I looked across the room into the faces of beloved men, some of whom I had already assigned blame for my sadness, because I wanted to blame someone. But I could only savor their lit-up eyes and wide smiles. My sadness whimpered as beauty and hope injured its villainous pride. Perhaps these – beauty and hope – would win the day after all.
I was in the Chicago Loop a few nights ago with a group offering hospitality and conversation to people experiencing homelessness. At the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive we crossed paths with a grandmother and her two young grandsons. I’ve seen them before; I know their names. They were tucked into the doorway of a closed cafe, and neither of the boys had gloves on. We offered what food and clothing we had and played a few simple, silly games. We made tigers roar and monkeys shriek, we pretended we had horns in our noses, and we held up fingers to show our ages. The boys smiled brilliantly, their small sparkling grins and clear eyes in sharp contrast to the concrete and the cold. Even grandma, whose eyes are usually downcast, beamed at the boys. We were there together, unfathomably different, despair and brokenness surrounding, yet momentarily joyful and willing to love.
It is into this world that I carry my sadness, which is mostly just me fighting the concurrent pains of addiction, loss, loneliness, and exhaustion. I cannot run from these things, but sometimes, even as I carry them with me, the world redeems them, takes their weight in an instant, giving me reason to laugh at Scripture and honk my nose.
Some sadness lasts a moment, and some lasts longer. Mine still lingers now, a more subtle villain lurking deep within the shadows of my heart. But smiles can cast a glorious light, and I choose joy. The ‘long loneliness,’ as Dorothy Day called it, is resolved by love and by friends – by these things that abound all around if I am open to them. So yes – I am sad. But in hope, I carry on.