I’m a sucker for sad songs. Give me some deep, melodic minor chords on an acoustic guitar or an upbeat, knee-slapper complete with banjo and fiddle about losing a good gal and falling on hard times - all great stuff to me. I’m often banned from any control of the music when hanging out with friends, and, in one sense, I totally get it - they’re not trying to get pumped up to go out on the town by listening to Ryan Adams softly sing “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Slow or fast, happy or sad, electronic or acoustic, most folks have particular genres or styles they like to listen to when they’re doing particular things. I’m weird in that I could just as easily listen to Ray LaMontagne during a hard run as I could The Black Keys. If I’m enjoying the music, chances are, it’s getting me going. On the other hand, occasionally I’ll hear someone say, “wow, that’s so depressing, how could you listen to that”. For the longest time, I’ve really just accepted that kind of thinking and maybe even agreed, “yeah, I’m just into sad songs”, but the real meaning of the statement is what gets me. If I say something is depressing, I mean the thing is actually bringing me down, lowering my mood, or sapping my level of happiness or satisfaction. I won’t say it’s never happened, but I feel like I’m much more likely to be depressed by the quality of some form of media art (music especially) rather than the content. Regardless, I think what we really mean when we describe an artist’s creation as depressing is the content of the thing itself reminds us and almost forces us to be aware of the reality of pain and hardship we all face in our own lives. Oftentimes, this is a reminder we would simply rather not have.
I’ve found the same reaction to books, movies, etc. A few months ago I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a dark book to say the least. It’s set in a post apocalyptic society and it follows a father and son’s struggle for survival. The details of the horrors and hardships these two go through are painfully visceral and real. They are cold, they are hungry, they are terrified, and they are well on their way to complete hopelessness. Light, cheery reading, huh? After finishing the book, I commented to a friend that I really enjoyed it, but wow was it depressing. I had said it myself. My friend’s response, however, has spurred the thoughts that prompted me to write this post. Having read the book in the past, he simply said, “It’s not depressing, it’s real”. Fictional as it is, it’s an honest account of what those characters went through and how the author thought they may feel in those moments. I knew almost immediately he was right. I thought back to reading the book, being in the thick of the narrative, and I tried to remember exactly how it made me feel. I can’t recall any instances of the book actually bringing me down - it may have made me introspective and withdrawn into thoughtfulness, but it didn’t bring down my mood or dampen my actual outlook on life in any way. In fact, I found myself hoping for the characters when they themselves were on the cusp of hopelessness. I sympathized with their unending search for warmth in a bleak, ash covered land. I tried to put myself in their shoes and I found that I couldn’t - it made me strangely thankful for what I have, even in spite of my own pain and loss.
Most mainstream music, movies, books, etc. today tell us that it’s always Saturday night, we should be dancing, and life is good. Romance novels and rom-coms show us that true love is easy - our experience probably tells us otherwise, but it’s nice to bury that under some dreamy love stories when we can, right? And I have to consider Reality TV which is, of course, anything and everything but reality. All of these things make us feel good though! They’re engaging, entertaining, and sometimes even heartwarming. We consume this stuff as if it were food. Good things, good thoughts, good vibes.. If we can just focus completely on the good things, maybe we’ll forget that broken relationship or the hurt within ourselves we never quite got around to working out. What we find is that, rather than clinging desperately to hope as the father and son did in The Road (where it was utterly impossible to deny that their world was broken, dark, and cold), we have no use for hope at all. Why would we need hope when everything is so good? I’ve consumed so much good, I’ve all but forgotten my every trouble all the way up to my own mortality. Those things have been reduced to no more than a strange feeling of uneasiness that we’ve trained ourselves to pass over very quickly. It’s only when we forget what’s actually real that reality (or anything that describes, reminds, or informs us of it) does indeed become truly depressing.
So to not be misunderstood, I want to be clear that I’m not championing “sad” media in any sort of effort to condemn “happy” media or to condemn those who enjoy it often or even almost all the time. I’m writing to hopefully remove the stigma from the stuff that’s not quite so cheery - the documentary about cancer, the song about heartbreak, and the book about the death of a friend. These things can be heavy, but the point is that we don’t ignore the white elephant - wouldn’t it be much better to learn about it and see it for what it really is rather than pretend it’s not there? The difficulties of others, fictional or not, remind us of our own difficulties, and I’m learning those are better dealt with than buried.
Our predisposition to upbeat, uptempo, happy, “let’s party” music, books, movies, etc. is only a piece of a much larger puzzle in which the exact same pattern is happening. We shy away from difficult or deep conversation because - plain and simple - it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable and we’d rather not do it. Let’s just talk about the weather or how we’re so glad football season is finally here; anything that doesn’t require vulnerability on my part or yours. When we go to church we want to hear about grace, redemption, and salvation; we don’t want to be reminded of our deep, deep brokenness even though it’s the very thing that necessitates the grace in the first place. We’re missing out when we do this. There is a sweet offer on the table from so many of the people and things around us. There’s an invitation to be met in those places we don’t even want to think about; to go there ourselves through the experiences of others or to go there through a conversation with a dear friend. We’re afraid to risk because we’re afraid of what we’ll find, but what if we find understanding? What if we find camaraderie, friendship, and love through the shared understanding and empathy for each other’s pain? Risky maybe, but it sounds like something worthy of pursuit and ultimately, hope.