Navigating Sadness on the Journey of Life by Matthew Hooper
Life is a journey.
This past Fall, our family made this truth a literal reality. On August 19, 2020, my wife, 3 kids, niece and I climbed into a travel trailer towing SUV and embarked on a 4-month road trip across America and back. Having never experienced anything like this, we truly did not know what to expect as we left Northern California. Even so, with hearts full of excitement, nervousness and wonder, we set out.
As we envisioned this journey, we chose four principles to order our thoughts and decisions. First, we wanted to be Missional (purposeful) as we travelled. We hoped to share the Love of Jesus and be a blessing to others – family, friends, colleagues, coaching clients and strangers – that we would meet along the way. Second, we desired an Adventurous spirit to guide our daily choices. We hoped doing so would move us to experience new, exciting, and sometimes even uncomfortable things. Third, we sought to maintain a Positive mindset regardless of the circumstances. We hoped to not let hard or unexpected realities lead to negativity, especially in our responses to each other. Finally, we set out to embrace the Stretching aspects of this unfamiliar expedition. We hoped to allow the difficulties we faced to grow us in positive ways.
Along with our digital maps, these principle-based MAPS guided us into an amazing, life-on-the-road experience, even throughout such a challenging time in all of our lives. For my family, we had all been challenged to grow at some point along the way. Honestly, I felt personally stretched on a daily basis. Nearly three months into our journey, however, I faced an extremely challenging experience that I truly did not expect. I knew it was an opportunity to grow, so I leaned in. The details follow.
As we started to head West from Florida in early November, I began to experience some significant pain in the center of my chest. I wondered if it was caused by COVID, heart issues or physical stress on an old collarbone injury. As I paid closer attention to my body and my heart, I came to realize that it was something else. It was sadness – a deep, pain-filled sadness. Turning West meant we were heading back home. And, home was a place of tragic loss and suffering in the recent past. At one point, the sadness was so heavy on me that I felt physically sick. I had to literally lay down. On the bed in our trailer, I turned toward my feelings. I had to face my sadness. Facing sadness is the first step toward moving through it in a healthy way.
Moving toward the painful sorrow I was feeling was the beginning of the process. I moved from self-denial to self-acknowledgement in relation to my sadness. However, if I was going to successfully continue working, driving and connecting with others, I needed to draw closer to my emotions. We can all acknowledge truth about ourselves but then keep the experience of such reality at a metaphorical arm’s length. Embracing sadness was the next step.
We can only possess what we experience. Meaning, we do not take personal ownership of an emotional aspect of ourselves until we actually feel it…deeply. In regards to my aching sadness, I needed to throw my heart around the feelings and truly embrace them. Doing so as I laid there in our trailer brought me to tears. This felt hard, but also very good. And then, as I invited my family, friends and counselor into my experience through vulnerable sharing, my affective experience became even better. I cried deeply. As I did, I moved from self-rejection to self-acceptance in relation to my sadness. Our experience of acceptance begins with each of us individually but only comes into fullness when we allow others to sit with us in our authentic feelings. This is especially true with sadness.
Experiencing sadness is difficult, especially when it is connected to painful loss. As we journeyed West toward home, sorrow came upon me like an unexpected wave. The pain in me was powerful and inescapable. After giving focused attention to my aching body and heart, I sensed my need for a break. Pacing sadness became a necessary next step in my process. And so, I got up. I went for a walk by myself and then with others. I intentionally talked about other things. I watched a movie. I ate a good meal and laughed with my family and friends. Through it all, I did not stop feeling my sadness. I simply gave myself permission to focus on other things. I moved from self-neglect to accurate self-assessment of my limits even when processing my sorrow. Wisdom calls us to acknowledge our limitations and slow down as we move through the deep feelings of our hearts. A more reasonable and peaceful processing of my sadness was the outcome. Even as our journey across America and back ended in mid-December, the painful sadness remained a steady undercurrent in my daily experience. However, as a result of facing, embracing and pacing my sadness along the way, I was able to return home with genuine thankfulness, joy and peace as the more prominent emotions of my heart. I’m so glad. And, I hope the same for you. As you go on your own journeys across the country or to the store around the corner, let me encourage you to face, embrace and pace your sadness. I am confident from experience that you will be more healthy, whole and peaceful as you do.
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