In the poem “For A Far Out Friend” writer Gary Snyder references “Devas”, beings of greater power and bliss than can be found in humanity. We seem to find it hard to achieve much bliss at times, in the tumult of everyday existence, and even a moderate level of happiness and contentment can be elusive when things go wrong, or when we are disappointed in ourselves or our fellow humans, and when all we really want to do is understand how to feel less sad and angry.
Earlier this week I bumped into Dave in the supermarket. Years after an acrimonious divorce he remains bitter, resentful and sad. It’s hard to make sense of much that he says but the undercurrent of anger and frustration is poorly veiled by an overlay of acid humour. His strategy of raging at the unfairness and his willingness to become a victim in his own life is not working, unless it is designed to create misery and emotional instability. It’s impossible to help people who are sad and angry if they’d much prefer to stay sad and angry.
It’s been a year for sad, polarising events, quite apart from the personal tragedies and disappointments which are scattered through the days like seed for black birds to feast on. If ever there was a sense of how little control we seem to have over the events which dictate how we feel it seems to be now. Helplessness is a painful place in which to stand and we cycle through anger and sadness trying to understand how to clamber out. We use sadness as a way of taking a rest, lying in its still waters, bereft of any real idea of how to make a meaningful difference, and anger, full of energy, is charged with so much potential but at the same time so easy to waste as we flail about firing its power in every direction save the one which is most useful.
We struggle to deal with sadness and anger because we misunderstand their usefulness. We want to push sadness away so that we never have to look at its tiresome, weary, tear-stained face. We want to fire anger off in the direction of people who can’t feel it or whom it cannot reach and so, in exasperation, we resort to turning it on ourselves or those who have played no real part in its creation. Like a hose full of water we spray it everywhere except on the fire and then, when the water is gone, we collapse and cry at the raging inferno which continues to burn everything down.
We cannot rid ourselves of sadness because it is as much a part of life as joy and celebration. One cannot exist without the other. Love is nothing without the risk of pain. Rather than pushing sadness away, a futile and pointless effort, we are better served to let it sink down within us, experiencing it and truly understanding what it tells us about how we feel, who we are, and what we most want to be different. Sadness has something to tell us and, failing to listen is a wasted opportunity. Only when sadness has seeped down through our bodies and into our feet can we walk and leave its footprints where we tread, only then, can we remember what it felt like and have any real chance of making the future different.
Anger is as misunderstood as any emotion could be. It is the black sheep of the family who never manages to get its point across because nobody wants to listen, engaged instead in their immovable and unshakable certainty of what it is. Anger is useless internalised or aimed in a wide arc across the horizon. Its energy is most effectively used to rise up and change what can be changed, to find individual and personal love and goodness from even the darkest of hours as a reminder of just how powerful we are. As the late Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. It is how we use the light which matters and not how much attention we place upon the crack.
Anger is like a nail sticking out from the door which snags your sweater every time you walk past. The answer is not to knock it into the wood where it does no harm but no good either, but to remove it and use it somewhere else, where it makes a difference.
Sadness is like a balm that burns when first rubbed into sore skin. The initial pain might suggest an alternative route, but for those who are willing to accept its discomfort there is a relief like no other in the end.
We are drawn to answers and to comfort more easily than we might imagine when we are facing sadness and anger, but we have to be open to experiencing both and willing to do the work which is needed to turn them into something more useful and manageable. The “Deva life” that Snyder speaks of is not somewhere else, it is here, but we have to strive to create it.
And I thought – more grace and love
In that wild Deva life where you belong
Than in this dress-and-girdle life
You’ll ever give
Gary Snyder – excerpt from “For A Far Out Friend”