Finding Hope in Rhythms of Sadness and Joy

November 3, 2023

It’s insidious, this little voice that says “I should be happy – what’s wrong with me?”

Despite decades of raising awareness about the breadth, causes and the universality of mental health struggles, a sense of personal failure attaches itself to living with poor mental health. This is partly due I believe to pervasive cultural and spiritual perspectives.

Spirituality in the West has become infected with what has been called prosperity theology, which attributes blessings of health and wealth to those who practice the right religion in the right way. (This leads to more feelings of inadequacy and failure for those who have not experienced or received these blessings.) A number of years ago I participated in several “dream school,” workshops in which I began to envision the life I wanted to live, the person I wanted to be. In my experience, healing does include learning to think differently, but the “see-it-be-it” formula doesn’t answer all our expectations.

There is a pervasive, underlying expectation in the West that people should be happy all the time. Our culture idolizes strength, independence, youth and vitality. It is natural to want to be esteemed by others so people hide their infirmities. Although most people have accepted that there is not always a cure for cancer, we think that there should be a cure for sadness if one can find the right drug or the right therapist.

Parker Palmer speaks of this cultural expectation in his poem “On Being.” He writes, “When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off… The moment we say “yes” to both of them and join their paradoxical dance, the two conspire to make us healthy and whole.” (1)

Mental (un)health is like other forms of chronic illness; there isn’t always a drug or a therapy or a therapist that will cure the problem for all time. Instead, healing comes in accepting ourselves and learning to live with our own biological rhythms. 

Years ago when I was suffering from malaria I began to recognize a pattern to my days. For example, between 4 and 6 p.m. I would be so anxious and depressed that I was certain that I was going to die and sometimes looking forward to it. I would force myself to eat supper and wash, cooling my sweat drenched body. Then we would gather under the mosquito net for stories and games. By 8 p.m. I would be feeling more hopeful. If I thought to take my emotional pulse, I would recognize feelings of peace and happiness. Negative self-talk had made my anxiety worse, and time with the children pulled me out of my head and into the present. The heaviness would return, but at least I could see there would be times of happiness too.  

Knowing my own rhythms can help me to recognize and appreciate the little moments of happiness when they occur. Even while getting help with medication and therapy I can help myself by accepting, and not judging myself. I can practice self care by looking for those little things that pull me out of my head and allow me to recognize moments of happiness, a short gentle walk, a game of sudoku, a shower or a soak in the bathtub, time (even on-line) with affirming people.

There is another reason for hope: Our biological rhythms mirror nature, because we are part of nature. There are hours in the day when the sun passes its energy to earth, and new life emerges and there are hours of darkness when the earth is silent and restful. Parker Palmer’s “On Being” poem is about autumn, the season of letting go and apparent death. For trees it is not the season of dying, but of resting and conserving energy. For us too there will be seasons of letting go and seasons of new life, like the natural cycles of day and night, Autumn and Spring.  Accepting that happiness and sadness are both part of a natural rhythm allows me, in Parker Palmer’s words, “to celebrate the primal power that is forever making all things new in me, in us, and in the natural world.” That gives me hope.

Gratitude Prompt: Give thanks for moments that bring happiness and an understanding that gives hope.

  1. Parker Palmer from “On Being” 2015.
  2. On November 30 the new hotline will be launched for Canadians struggling with mental health: dial or text: 9-8-8. Check https://hope-notes.ca/resources/ for more mental health resources for Canadians and Americans.