I’m reading this book right now (one of three that I am currently juggling) called Probation by Tom Mendicino. It was recommended to me by Goodreads’ new recommendation engine. I’ve been waiting for Goodreads to get a recommendation engine in place because I am always looking for books to read. If I’m going to up my goal in 2012 to 75 books read, I’m going to need all the help I can get. Anyway, Goodreads recommended this book to me based on the fact that I read Insignificant Others, which I remember liking but feeling incredibly depressed while reading. I read the blurb – married guy gets busted giving a guy a blow job in a rest stop, his life falls apart but yet he finds redemption – and I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a try. I’ve been reading it over the last few days and last night, while Heidi and Anna were at the NaNoWriMo write in, I did pretty much nothing but read it.
Honestly, it’s so sad, it’s killing me. Just when I think I’ve read the saddest thing that could happen to the narrator, something even worse happens. I’m totally plugged into the character and the mess he’s made of his life because of his inability to be honest with himself and his attractions early in life. Between societal pressures and self-loathing, the book makes pretty clear that a decision to live as an out gay man was not even on his radar. He married and the devastation wrought not just in his life but in all those lives that touch his has been immeasurable. It’s told from the first person point of view so we’re really deep inside his head and let me tell you, it’s not always a pleasant place to be. It was just ripping me apart last night as I read about what happened to his first lover – another married guy hiding from the world. It was like a bad car accident – you don’t want to look. I should just stop reading, but I can’t. I’m totally in for the long haul.
I got to thinking, why would I voluntarily subject myself to this? Like I said, I should just stop because the world’s painful enough without inviting more pain in. But I think that’s too simple. Somehow or another, I think there’s something therapeutic about allowing yourself to feel pain, especially when it’s from the relatively safe vantage point of reading a fictional story of someone else’s pain. Is it like watching a horror film, that allows us to feel the unpleasant and visceral emotion of fear from the safety of our living room couch? I think it probably is.
As Mary Chapin Carpenter (or more accurately, Mark Knopfler) says, “You gotta know happy, you gotta know glad/Because you’re gonna know lonely and you’re gonna know sad.” I think the reason I sometimes subject myself to this is because yeah, I have a melancholy streak that sometimes needs feeding. I can empathize with the narrator of this story. Although I get really tired of the popular gay books that all seem to be about unhappy and unfulfilled gay men, sometimes I need a little bit of that kind of reality check. Yes, the world is painful and life is painful and no one is spared. It’s why I reread And The Band Played On every few years. I think that sometimes, there’s no better way into a person’s heart and soul than empathizing with them through bad times.
All this talk of the power of sad reminded me of one of my favorite 90s country albums – Reba McEntire’s For My Broken Heart. You wanna talk sad? This album has it in spades. Recorded in the wake of a plane crash that killed most of Reba’s touring band, it is song after song of missed opportunities and tragedies, both large and small. It’s one of those albums that wouldn’t really seem to be a candidate for repeat listens. In spite of that, I listened to it non stop in the summer of 1993 and fall of 1994. I think some of that might have been that the sadness really spoke to me then because I was probably at the nadir of my then undiagnosed (and untreated) depression during those years. I really plugged into the stories of the man on death row because he mercy-killed his wife, Reba staring out the window through these teardrops as she took a bus back to West Virginia, the old lady in the nursing home who gets all dressed up every weekend only to have no family visit and the woman whose husband is out buying some other woman roses (and where that leaves her, God only knows.)
I think that plugging into that sadness can really help you feel your own sadness or pain more authentically. It gives you a pathway to it that might not otherwise be there. One of my favorite movie quotes is from Ordinary People – it comes from one of the therapy scenes in which Judd Hirsch tells Timothy Hutton “A little advice about feelings kiddo; don’t expect it always to tickle.” Yeah, it’s not always sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. But being able to access those negative emotions helps me to feel the positive ones more intensely.
My wife always says that a wise man sits with pain. My corollary to that is always “yes, but he should not wallow in it.” To me, that’s the difference between reading a book like Probation or listening to an album like For My Broken Heart and finding your way out of feeling bad vs. using them as a mechanism for staying in a negative spot. There’s power in feeling sad or crying or being angry. You just can’t stay there. It has to be the first step on a journey toward healing.
That’s why I will occasionally read sad books and listen to sad songs. I think they help us lead more emotionally full lives. Sure, I love “happily ever afters” and funny things as well. But, as I’ve found to be true of almost all things in life, it’s all about balance. Too much one way and we’re all off kilter. Attaining that balance is a lifelong process and why I’ll always be, as Barbra Streisand says “a work in progress!”