Driving (and Dancing) with Sadness and Joy

by Chris Wenger

It was perhaps the loneliest car trip I’ve ever made. I was driving from Indiana home to Colorado after delivering my son to his freshman year of college. Parents who have done the same thing may be familiar with the keen mixture of emotions that can arise during this family ritual. 

On the one hand, I was grateful that my son would have the opportunity to grow and stretch in this brave new world that he was excited to enter, and proud of the intellectual and emotional work he had done to reach the point of jumping out of the nest. There was an inexpressible sweetness in this moment. On the other hand, I felt deep in my bones that a border had been crossed. A crucial and precious part of life—his childhood, with all its joys and sorrows—was now irrevocably past. So I was also feeling sharp sadness as I headed west.

In our emotional family, as in flesh-and-blood families, we have favorite members and others we prefer to avoid. Sadness and joy are, of course, both members of our emotional family. Though we tend to view them as separate, even opposites, they often intermingle. In my experience, the charged mixture of sadness and joy is a potent expression of our inherent wakefulness. 

All our emotions have their place. There is no real enemy. Meeting sadness and joy without bias or struggle creates space and allows them to speak to our hearts and minds in the same way that natural phenomena often do. Meditation can help us open up to whatever is arising in our minds and in the world around us. This is actually the point of meditation, learning that we can live in fearless openness and relate in an authentic, dignified way with the various energies and situations that arise. Meeting whatever arises with complete openness is liberation.

The dance of sadness and joy is inescapable as we journey toward complete openness. There is a certain poignancy in simply being a living human being subject to impermanence, a basic level of sadness that lies beyond the various stories we tell ourselves about why we’re sad. Pervasive and often so subtle that we ignore it, it is deeply human. 

Sometimes that basic sadness seems gentle, sometimes it seems deep and piercing. But it’s not particularly tragic. It’s just what is. In fact, if we acknowledge that basic sadness and relate with it forthrightly, without denying it or fighting it, it helps us engage more fully in our life. It is a form of wakefulness and basic healthiness, and the source of great dignity.

To be fully human is to know both sadness and joy, and to know them together. Genuine joy does not reject sadness but accommodates it and includes it in its joyfulness. Sadness deepens and matures our intelligence. Meeting sadness with gentleness softens us and opens our heart. At the same time, joy reminds us to laugh, love, and appreciate—knowing that life passes quickly. 

Experiencing the inseparability of sadness and joy opens us to the wonder of being alive in this world. It enables us to connect deeply and authentically with others. And it enables us to inhabit life fully and sanely, both the pain and the pleasure of it, the delight and the boredom. We begin to realize that there is no fundamental problem with any of it. 

That’s a helpful thing to remember when we undertake the lonely drive home.