I’m a sad person but I also don’t like the way that sounds because it sounds unmanly and embarrassing. When I was a little boy, my greatest social failing was that other boys could sense that I was not enough of a boy. I liked to talk more than I liked to fight. I cried when something hurt my feelings. I used my matchbox cars to act out musicals. None of this is manly. Anger is manly. Even depression carries with it a dark brooding nature. “He is depressed.” People might say. “He spends a lot of time alone. He is deep.” But I don’t really know the difference between depression and sadness. I only know that I have been sad for as long as I can remember having feelings. I used to joke that I had a permanently broken heart. Like it just happened one day when I was a child and it never healed back. Them’s the breaks. Tough titties, as my mom used to say, smiling and patting my head whenever I suffered some mild disappointment. Forty years later, the phrase still makes me laugh. WTF are tough titties?
Even though I’m pretty sure it’s true, I stopped saying it, because I stopped being able to stomach the pity and alarm I read on people’s faces when I spoke the words. It seemed to make some people want to heal me, to take me on as their own project to fix up and bring joy to. As if their lives could not stand if my sadness continued, as if the healing of my sadness would somehow be the healing of all sadnesses. This of course, felt smothering. It never seemed like care toward me, more like I was a hair out of place for them. Something that needed to be set right before they went forward. For others my broken heart joke seemed to make them want stay as far away from me as possible. As if it were a disease. Catching. A mist that could seep out from my pores and infect anyone within a six foot radius.
As a culture we don’t really know what to do with sadness. It feels weak and ineffectual. What does sadness make you do? Nothing. Just sit around and feel. I can’t think of anything more anti-capitalist than that. Even the people who hate capitalism still want to achieve something better. They want to make a new thing that defeats the old thing. They want to win. Smash, take down, destroy, overcome. There is a part of me that doesn’t like my sadness because it does not motivate me to do anything.
The thing is, I’ve been sad for so long that I’ve learned to do everything while sad. Love, protest, write, clean, parent, laugh, work out, ride my bike, vacuum my floors. The sadness does not stand in the way of that. It just comes along for the ride.
I’m sad about everything I’ve ever seen. My mother’s death, homelessness — my own and other people’s, the enslavement of my ancestors, bad movies, heartbreaks, abusive exes, coffee commercials, broken down cars, abandoned steel mills, redlining.
Michael Jackson, our family dog, my son’s eyes when he was a toddler, my daughter’s first bicycle. The Oakland Raiders, The Golden State Warriors, gentrification, mediocre hamburger restaurants, Midtown Manhattan on a Sunday, people delivering food in the snow, sunsets.
Endangered sea turtles, influencers, gaining weight, stubbing my toe, cancer, homeless trans kids, TERFS, my homophobic uncle, an Ocean Vuong poem, Nina Simone, children who laugh at other children for crying, my partner’s seven year old daughter leading me into her room so she can show me every single one of the rings, pins, charms, trinkets, and bracelets she has been saving in a small jewelry box for the entirety of her little life.
There is nothing wrong with being sad. It is not enough, but for me it can never be too much. Anger is useful because it shows me what is hurting. But sadness shows me what is missing, what is needed. Sadness shows me who needs love and what kind of love is needed. I have no choice but to embrace sadness. Accepting it is not enough. It needs to be loved, as a part of me, just as I have to love all the people, places, and things that need my love in order to grow and be safe. I don’t worry that it makes me sound soft. I know that my embrace of sadness means that I am unafraid, at this point, of pretty much anything. I remain sad, because I refuse to lie. Fighting is easy. I have fought my whole life in order to be here today. I’ve faced fighting. I’ve faced blood and survived. I’ve faced hunger and violence and pain and survived. If you can do all that, and also face sadness, then I think there is no power you cannot have, no fight you cannot wage. Brute strength tells you to fight. But strength with grief tells you what to fight for: humanity, love, freedom, liberation, and an end to oppression for all the people our current system is harming. You only have the one short nonsensical life anyway. What else could you possibly want to do with it?