The Contagion of Sadness


 

Sadness is not contagious.  In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.

Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.

But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.

Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.

The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.

In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.  Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)

Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging.  The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves.  Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.

There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter.  We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.

Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering.  Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.

As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,

…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self.  The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity.  The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.*  By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)

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*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3

(2) ibid, p. 73

Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana

Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar