I recently watched the movie “Inside Out” with my family. The movie features five emotions operating inside a girl’s head and controlling her thoughts and actions. Joy, the leader of the five, tries to suppress Sadness, thereby sheltering the girl from ever feeling sad. Joy ultimately realizes that Sadness must be allowed to “take control” on occasion so the girl can accept and overcome her difficulties and ultimately experience joy and other emotions again.
In our society, we sometimes have the idea that sadness, or any negative emotion, is bad and must be avoided. We may try to suppress sadness through consumerism, overindulgence, alcohol, drugs, or other harmful substances or behaviors. In my own life, I’ve recently learned that experiencing sadness is valuable as a means of confronting difficulties. The sadness allows us to accept hardships in a spirit of radiant acquiescence and ultimately to overcome and grow from them. Denying or suppressing sadness deprives us of this opportunity for growth.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a central figure of the Bahá’í Faith and the son of its Prophet-Founder Bahá’u’lláh, repeatedly emphasized that we should be happy and that He wants us to be happy. When greeting people, He would give a joyful smile and ask, “Are you happy?” Many found themselves powerless to feel anything but joy and happiness in the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
In reading about His life recently, however, I noticed several instances where He felt sadness. When He was reminded of the sufferings of Bahá’u’lláh, He was reported to be “plunged into sadness” for an afternoon or the remainder of the day. Other causes of sadness were actions of His family members or of Baha’is which would be contrary to the spirit of the Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. If even ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who to me represents the epitome of joy and happiness, felt sadness, then certainly it’s all right for me to feel sadness as well and that there must be value in feeling it.
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The challenge then becomes how we allow ourselves a healthy dose of sadness without descending into a state of depression. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, “all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter — the spiritual world bestows only the joy!” The more we attach ourselves to the spiritual world and detach ourselves from the material world, the better we’re able to cope with life’s inevitable causes of sadness and to more fully feel joy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the value of joy: “In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, when in a state of sorrow, would find His spirit rejuvenated and uplifted when in the presence of the Bahá’ís, who were themselves turning to the spiritual world and who were therefore joyful. It is thus our community, whether religious, spiritual, or otherwise, that provides the support system we need to console us in sorrow and uplift us to a state of joy.
In times of sadness, I’ve often found comfort and joy in this prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
“O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord.”