Part III of Powlison’s Blog on Sadness

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What about the question of temperament? Do “people who tend to be more thoughtful also tend to be sadder”? From one angle that makes sense. For example, Ecclesiastes is a prime example of careful noticing and hard thinking about every little thing that goes on under the sun. One of Solomon’s conclusions is that “in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
But from another angle, any person who works hard to make something good happen also deals with inevitable disappointment and sadness. Ecclesiastes captures that, too, for Solomon is a doer as well as a thinker: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Efforts fall short. Hopes and dreams are dashed. Unintended consequences derail good intentions. Human beings prove refractory. Futility and frustration stalk human achievement. The next generation throws it all away.

Christians have always understood that our faith calls forth both contemplative reflection and vigorous action. The vita contemplativa and the vita activa are in principle complementary. Seek to understand what is. Seek to do something about it. Most of us probably have tendencies—a temperament—that emphasizes one aspect more than the other. But image-bearers of God are made for both understanding and action. Honest sadness can attend both.

Questions about temperament have generated a good bit of social science research, as well as attempts to delineate typologies (for example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Here’s a bit of research that I think is interesting. Researchers looked at how people perceive themselves, their life situation, and other people, and divided people into optimists and pessimists. They found that people all across the optimistic half of the spectrum had distorted perceptions of self, circumstances and others. In other words, idealists and romantics are Pollyannas. If you see every cup as at least half full, you are looking at life through sentimental, rose-colored glasses. Those on the extreme pessimistic end of the spectrum—cynics and profoundly depressed people—also had distorted perceptions. They look through blues-colored glasses. When you see every cup as no more than half empty, you are looking at everything as bleaker than it is. Who were the people who were most realistic? They tended to be “mildly depressed” by the criteria of the researchers. They accurately recognized their own faults along with strengths. They recognized both the strengths and failings of others, even those they admire and love. They recognized both the good and the bad in life experience. People who see things most realistically are neither gloomy nor giddy.

Of course, a social science study is only descriptive, not normative. And it doesn’t attempt to comprehend the true bleakness of human mortality and sinfulness (“having no hope and without God in the world,” Ephesians 2:12). But it descriptively gestures in the direction of at least part of the world view of Psalms. Though the research doesn’t comprehend the psalms, I would assert that the voice of the psalms is the most realistic of all. Psalms ultimately demonstrate the thoughts, experience, emotions, and voice of Jesus. He is the only completely sane human being, and it is clear that he is a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. It is also clear that he is a man of joy, and an intimate friend of gladness.

Life contains many hardships and troubles. Human character is intrinsically compromised, evidencing contradictions, hypocrisies, and blind spots. So an appropriately darkened mood is not only normal, but desirable. Honest self-assessment before God’s eyes necessarily takes note of one’s own sinfulness and the sinfulness of others. At the same time, the living contradiction of human character also evidences strengths, piercing insights, and kindhearted actions. So Christian worship contains confession of sin, but also expression of gratitude: “We thank thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life,” as the General Thanksgiving (Book of Common Prayer) puts it. That calls forth a mood appropriately brightened by gratitude. And this same prayer goes on to thank God “above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” Our faith calls forth an ultimate, transfiguring hope, joy, and thankfulness.

Wise, seasoned Christian faith creates the most realistic people of all, whether they are instinctively more contemplative or more active. It makes sense that such men and women will be characterized both by deeper sorrows and by deeper joys. It also makes sense that they will roll up their sleeves to do what needs doing to alleviate sorrow and multiply joy.

This is part 3 of a series. Read the introduction to the series here. Read part 2 of the series here.


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