Sadness of the World Days - by Natasha Kolar
“Some people have a thick skin and you don’t. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The Cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you’re not going to feel like that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on.”
- Anne Lamott, Stitches: A Handbook of Meaning, Hope, and Repair
After seventh grade, my best friend Laurie and I dropped out of school. Yes, we literally dropped out of junior high. Our parents were a rare breed who offered us control over our education - where we learned, with whom and from whom we learned, and (as often as possible) what we would learn about. During eighth grade, our coursework included radio drama production, Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, the physics of paper airplanes, rollerskating, lyrical dance, Algebra, choir, the science of genetics, Op-Talk (a code language much like Pig Latin), the U.S. Constitution, and many other random and fascinating things.
Home school, definitely more interesting than public school, was also free from a lot of the socio-emotional violence that had surprised me at Placer Middle School. Kids were relatively nice in sixth grade, I thought… but in seventh, I learned that a lot of unkindness went on when I wasn’t listening. And some when I was.
I wasn’t wired to sling insults or trash-talk behind peoples back. The oldest of four kids, and the daughter of the sweetest angel of a mother God ever created, my instinct was to accommodate the kids who didn’t fit in rather than suck up to the cool crowd. I was better at apologizing than posturing. I was as soft as a marshmallow. And instead of trying to toughen up, I kind of wanted to stay that way. Luckily I had an ally.
Laurie and I will always remember (and still frequently laugh about) the day we decided to forego the politics of cool, and go our own way. Be weird and love it instead of try to calculate and emulate “normal.” We were 12 years old. It was lunch period. We were hanging out by the baseball diamond, eating our sandwiches, and making significant life decisions.
Sometimes I think that was the second most important day of my life. It was my first of two conversions. A prologue to my conversion from self to God, this first conversion marked a shift in my allegiance from society to myself. An attempt at rugged individualism - the theme I would later become obsessed with when studying American literature at age 16.
My individualism was and is not terribly rugged, though. For me, part of pledging allegiance to myself requires me to accept and care for my unbelievably thin skin. Skin thin not just to personal wounds, but to the injuries strangers and friends and enemies and fictional characters inflict on each other. Some days, my concern and despair over random acts of unkindness are absolutely overwhelming.
My friend Mallie and I call these days “Sadness of the World Days.” SOW Days are when the weight of minor and mass evils haunt and pierce us, and the mundane life-as-usual day seems to have a slightly menacing soundtrack. Recently, I decided that a day like this could also be called a Skin-Inside-Out Day. It feels as though the slightest brush of story against my skin makes me wince at the pain another person or a people is faced with. This is empathy on steroids. The demanding refrain of the day insists,
Why are we alive? What is the point of all this? How can I live meaningfully into these awful-earth realities? Why shouldn’t I just blissfully close my eyes and ears to all of this?
I might be able tune these questions out altogether if I tried, or at least learn to diminish my emotional reaction to them. But I’ve come to suspect that part of my purpose here on Earth is to respond deeply to things, people, stories, events, situations, relationships. I am convinced that this part of my design could not entirely be a mistake. It’s part of what makes me a poet. A friend. A bartender. A Christian. And I am not unique in my experience of this characteristic, my hope to protect and keep it intact, and finally my desire for it to result in greater good rather than simply an ongoing series of existential crises.
A favorite writer explains her own unusually intense reactivity well, embodying hope and generosity as her courageous response, rather than despair and isolation:
"I saw the headlines, families broken apart by economic dramas, I saw the exodus of Americans, the changes and havocs brought on by world conditions. Individual lives shaken, poisoned, altered... The struggle & instability of it all. I was overwhelmed. And then, with greater, more furious, more desperate stubbornness I continued to build my individual life, as if it were a Noah's Ark for the drowning. I refused to share the universal pessimism and inertia."
-Anais Nin, Diary of Anais Nin: Volume 1
Henri Nouwen offers me great hope, too:
"The more I think about the human suffering in the world and my desire to offer a healing response, the more I realize how crucial it is not to allow myself to become paralyzed by feelings of impotence and guilt. More important than ever is to be very faithful to my vocation to do well in the few things I am called to do and hold on to the joy and peace they bring me. I must resist the temptation to let the forces of darkness pull me into despair and make me one more of their many victims...
I know of few people who have seen as much suffering as the Dalai Lama... Still I know of few people who radiate as much peace and joy.... How is it possible that a man who has been subjected to such persecution is not filled with anger and a desire for revenge? When asked that question the Dalai Lama explains how, in his meditation, he allows all the suffering of his people and their oppressors to enter into the depth of his heart, and there to be transformed into compassion."
-Henri Nouwen, Here and Now
While Nin and Nouwen’s reflections and practices don’t necessarily solve problems of minor or mass evil, they do offer strategies for me to use when I feel like I can't bear the burn of a Skin-Inside-Out Day. I mean for 1) prayer and meditation to be a more instinctive response and a replacement for the churning of my empathic imagination, 2) acts of compassion to move me when despair threatens to paralyze me, and finally 3) reading and writing to be a continued lifeline to allies who have chosen to be soft to the sadness of the world - as dangerous as this can be.
In some ways this is easier to navigate at the ripe middle age of 31 than it was at 12 years young. I can only hope that greater grace, companionship, and wisdom will continue to make this skin more wearable, hope more tangible, and evil less terrifying.