There exists in the LDS culture an idea that we are meant to be happy and to have the gospel is to be happy. It is not uncommon to imagine the afterlife as a state of unending happiness. So much of or rhetoric is based on how we are the happiest people on Earth because we possess the gospel. As such, sadness becomes a tool of the devil, something to be eradicated. The eternal stakes are raised and sadness becomes an embarrassment, something to be hidden.
The ancient Greeks considered, sadness, or melancholia (literally translated- “black bile”) to be a vital part of us. They named it one of the four humors, or fluids, that ran throughout our body. Problems arise when those humors became out of balance and one comes to dominate over the others. While the medical concept of the four humors lies in the dustbin of history, it actually still finds resonance in the idea of clinical depression, where brain chemistry is unbalanced to a degree that one becomes paralyzed by it, incapable of feeling anything or even thinking or moving at normal speed, psychomotor retardation. It can be completely dysfunctional. Nonetheless, sadness is a part of us and, I believe, a vital part of being a balanced human being. To purge ourselves of melancholy is to leave ourselves just as out of balance as those trapped in the throes of a deep depression.
The great philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard wrote that he often “felt bliss in melancholy and sadness” and thought that he was “used by the hand of a higher power through [his] melancholy.” There does seem to be something about the dark, uncomfortable state that leads to yearning, creativity and a vision of hope for something better. To eliminate sadness is to eliminate a driving force found behind so much of our most profoundly moving art, poetry and music.
The danger of trying to purge our lives of sadness as a proof we are living the gospel is that it leads to an artificial mask of distortion we wear in front of others. We can settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete realities. We can build our own Potemkin Villages as discussed by President Uchtdorf in general conference a year ago. Internalized, it forces this uncomfortable emotion into a deep, dark hole where it can fester. It is to become out of touch with ourselves, inauthentic. The problem is, we live in a world that is undeniably tragic. It is a world over which God himself has wept Moses 1:28), in which the Savior groaned beneath the load of our infirmities that his bowels might be filled with mercy (Alma 7:12). We teach that there was literally a war in heaven over the right to live in a world with sin, pain and injustice as inescapable fruits of agency, perhaps an inescapable part of existence.
One of my favorite parts of the Book of Mormon was the profound lecture of Lehi to his son Jacob in 2 Nephi chapter 2. He comments on the absolute need for opposition in all things and then makes the following statement about what would have happened if Eve had not partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil-
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
Joy is a word with a lot more permanence, heft and depth to it than happiness, which is fleeting. In the Disney Pixar film Inside Out the emotions of a little girl named Riley are personified in a wonderfully illustration of personality theory. Joy is the name of the chief emotion of the child, and has no time for sadness. As the girl matures, her core memories become more complex, and multifaceted, containing not one emotion but various hues. Our core memories and core personality needs our highs and lows, light and darkness to grow and mature. In my mind, this is what true Joy is. It is not one fleeting emotion but a mature, rich, full take on life in all it’s beauty and tragedy. It is something much more profound than happiness and something that can become part of the core of our being as we mature.
Beyond that, evolutionary scientists postulate that sadness leads us to withdraw from a group with an outward expression of how we are feeling, such as crying. This leads those who really care to reach out and desire to help those who are suffering and strengthens social bonds. It is much more effective than anger or fear in striking a chord of empathy in others and helps individuals get help when needed while creating strongly bonded tribes and communities. In this way it is a socializing emotion. We are sad because it draws others to us and leads them to empathize. It is seeing another’s expression of suffering that leads us to want to “succor them in their infirmities.” Sadness is at the root of being able to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comfort.” To hide and bury sadness is to deny the opportunity others have to love and serve us. In this way, sadness is a key ingredient in building Zion and knitting our hearts together in love and charity. So in my book the gospel is one of joy, yes- but also quite beautifully, one of sadness as well.