Wrestling with Sadness: A Dance with 'Letters to a Young Poet'

Are you sad? Living in a season of sadness and melancholy?

Embrace it. Let it settle deep within you. Do not run from it, tempting as it may be. Invite it to stay a while as your guest.

Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent. Rilke, pg 64 

I was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. Mostly the same girls on the squad my whole life. There was one girl on the squad who just didn't like me. And whether she intentionally meant to or not, I will never know, but she did an unspeakable number of cruel things to me.

I remember inviting girls to come over to my house or to go to the movies after games (the mean girl included) and all of them would akwardly say that they were sorry, they already had plans. And then I remember what it felt like to hear her talking loudly, minutes later with her back to me, about how the girls were actually going over to hang out at her house and how much fun they were going to have. In front of me.

They all had plans because they were all going to her house and I was the only one not invited. And she made sure I knew that time and again. Countless Friday nights I would go home in tears, my dad saying "I'm so sorry sweetheart. Don't let her ruin your night. We're going to have a great night. Want to go to CiCi's Pizza?"

And while I love my dad and the precious offer, that just made it worse. I felt like the most lame person alive.

They were tiny moments. But there were lots of them. Enough to make me feel stupid and lonely. And even though I had amazing friends from church- and a social life through my youth group- I felt so alienated and excluded from the girls that I spent the most time with. I can't count how many Friday night games I left, holding back tears, feeling alone, embarrassed and unwanted.

But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? Rilke, pg 63

It caught up with me my senior year and I fell into a deep season of sadness.

I could not 'see further' and 'endure my sadness with greater confidence than my joy'. I could not see past the hurt- into college or into a career or into a time where I would not feel alone.

But more than that, I could not see that during the season of sadness, during those Friday nights of loneliness, something new was being introduced into my soul and ushered into my life. I did not know I was undergoing a change while I was sad. But I was.

During those nights I learned empathy and compassion. During those nights I learned to read scripture in my bedroom closet. During those nights I learned to sing harmony. And I sang for hours. During those nights I learned that kindness matters. People matter. During those nights I came to know the Holy Spirit as one of my most constant companions. During those nights I became an artist. A lover. A preacher. A thinker. An activist. A champion of the underdog.

I just did not know it.

I did not 'count it pure joy'  to be excluded; the constant target of a mean girl. Back then, I was angry and sad and embarrassed. I wish I could have seen during that season, during that stillness, that something new had entered my soul and taken up residency. But I did not have eyes to see.

And maybe you, in your sadness, do not have eyes to see yet either.

And this is why it is important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside. The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it happens (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. Rilke, pg 65

Years later, I signed a record deal and threw a party. I dreamed up songs and recorded them. I got on stage in front of thousands of teenagers and reminded them of God's love for them. Of their unique being and their importance in this world. I hugged and prayed with more broken people those first few years than I would have ever dreamed.

And I remember so clearly the moment in the midst of all of that, that I realized, where I was and what I was doing had entered into me a long time before that actual moment.

Infact, it came to me in the silence of my sadness. Feeling alone, excluded, angry and sorry for myself. The new had gone into me back then. While I kicked and screamed and fought against being alone; God was actually growing new things inside of me. The idea of settling into and welcoming a season of sadness was the last thing on my mind as a wounded 17 year old girl. And yet it was there, on those lonely Friday nights, that my future was born.

And years later, when it 'stepped forth out of me and onto others' I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that for me, I was exactly where I was because once there was a season of sadness that grew new, beautiful and mysterious things inside my soul. 

I only wish I would've known back then. Perhaps I would have shed less tears and found joy in the in-between place. Perhaps I would have done what the poet so beautifully tells the young man he is trying to counsel in this series of letters to do: 'be lonely and attentive when one is sad.'

I hate feeling lonely. I despise seasons of sadness for the immediate pain, shame and vitriol they seem to conjure up in me. But I am so, so grateful that I have endured them. I believe it has been in these seasons that God has prepared my heart and equipped me with every beautiful and good thing that has, at some point in the future, come to life.

And while it is hard to say whether Rainer Maria Rilke would ascribe anything to God, much less God's very existence, it is easy to say that he understood the depths we must travel, the depths that Jesus himself traveled (Think 40 days of isolation in the wilderness or the feeling of loneliness as Jesus asked God to take away the cup of suffering while his friends kept watch. Only they didn't keep watch, they fell asleep.)

... to arrive at that still place of sadness where something new comes to life.

So you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Rilke, pg 69-70

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43: 19




*sadness: A season of sadness and a battle with a clinical diagnosis of depression are quite different. As a girl who has long struggled with mental illness (OCD/ADHD) and believes in proper therapy and medicine, I would never want my words to discourage someone from seeking the help they might need. Depression is real- and it steals from the fullness of life God created you to live in. For more information about the difference between a season of sadness and clinical depression, visit a trusted site like Dr. Les Carter's.

All quotes taken from: Rilke, Ranier Maria. Letters to a Young Poet: Revised Edition. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1954.