I’ve been dealing with a lot of sadness on this trip. Of course, a lot of my time has been filled with pure joy as well, but sadness has been a large part of it. It’s funny – when one thinks of going abroad, sadness does not even cross one’s mind. It is absent from all of the plans and the idealization that each person is guilty of calling “the future.” Well, as Buddhists might say, “wherever you go, there you are.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, “my giant goes with me wherever I go.” The emotions that accompany us throughout our life are not things we can choose not to pack.
The sadness I’ve felt, however, most often doesn’t resemble those old emotions I carry around with me (though of course, sometimes, it must). It is a strange kind of sadness, associated with nothing in particular, but deep and real and pure. It often has me holding back tears underneath my sunglasses, with no comprehension of why I feel the way I do or when or how my emotions crept up on me.
I woke up on my third day in Burma to a beautiful beach. I put on my swimsuit and plopped into a lawn chair and stared at the ocean. That sweet and unexplained sadness suddenly hit and overtook me, and I didn’t know what to do. Tears started filling my eyes as I looked on, hopelessly, trying to figure out what on earth was wrong with me. I opened my book, one I’ve brought with me everywhere I’ve gone for the past year or so – Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It is a volume I stumbled upon at camp two summers ago, and which I carry around because of the immense amount of wisdom its few pages hold. I had only happened, as I was packing for Burma, to rediscover it hiding in one of my bedside drawers, and had put it in my bag as an afterthought, figuring I might like to reread a passage or two on the beach. On my sad morning, I flipped to the letter I had left off at months ago – the last time I’d picked it up, sitting in my room in Charlottesville – and was immediately shocked at the sheer fortuity of finding that dog-eared page: the very letter I opened the book to addressed the exact kind of sadness that I was feeling, unexplained and heavy and confusing and heartbreaking and lonely.
Sadnesses, according to Rilke, are “moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown” that saddens us “because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing.” Well, what a thought. At first I didn’t know what to make of it. I left my book to walk down the beach with my friend Edy, a kindred spirit and a yogi and a writer, who assured me as soon as I told her how I was feeling that she often felt the exact same way. “It’s because we’re growing,” she said, just like that. And suddenly it made sense:
I’m sad because I’m changing, because I’m growing from every experience I’m having on and off of the ship in these months, and because something about me feels unfamiliar - and that’s the loneliest thing in the world. It feels lonely to lose a part of yourself, and to gain one that you’re not used to. It’s heart wrenching, and isolating, and even a little scary.
I want to change and I want to grow, and if that growing comes with pain, I’ll take it. For the first time, I’m learning that sadness is beautiful, too. That it reminds me of the deep blue ocean that surrounds me between every port. That it deepens my experience and heightens my emotions and makes me appreciate my happy days so much more than I could if I didn’t experience it at all.
It’s okay to be sad, and to not know why, and to let the world whisper to you, though books and friends and barefoot walks on the sand, that everything is going to be okay.