Joys and Sorrows Inside Out

Joys and Sorrows Inside Out
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 7, 2016

Loss and grief hang within the cusp of every new moment and burgeoning joy of life.  In the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” he tells us that “Nature’s first green is gold.” I have a beautiful green plant in my living room that unfurls a fresh leaf every now and then, a simple pothos plant. The new leaf is different from the others; for about half-a-day it is softer, with a shine like gold. “Nature’s first green is gold.” But gold is the color of fall; gold is the color nature offers as its last color before the brown of death and winter.  Nature’s last color is gold. Yet Frost tells us, paradoxically, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” A hint of the end is at the cusp of birth.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This is a delightfully complex and nuanced poem. Let me briefly point out one pattern to help me begin my sermon. Rather than a melancholy ode to grief and despair over the momentariness of lustrous beauty, this is a poem about life. The poem explains that in nature the green leaf is the predominant feature for us to notice. The gold is noteworthy, but the green is life.

Then the pattern of the poem continues: The flower is noteworthy, but it is the leaf that is life. Dawn is noteworthy, but day is life. Thus by this pattern, Eden is noteworthy, but grief is life. Robert Frost equates grief with the common green leaf of day.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This is not meant as a melancholy poem, but a full-throated acceptance of life. Grief is life. What an odd sentiment. It is a clever use of a literary device Felix Culpa, or ‘happy fall’, meaning: the mythic story in the Bible about the fall from Eden was a good thing. In this poem, Frost says the same for grief.

Sadly, it is a normal experience in our culture to feel as though you should always be happy and should resist all experiences of grief and sadness. Feeling sad is looked upon as some sort of failing. Sadness is actually a rather useful emotion, rich with potential for personal growth and maturation of the spirit.  I will circle back to Robert Frost’s poem in a moment, but first let me tell you about the same message offered through a children’s animated movie.

This past Friday over 30 people attended our family film night showing of Pixar’s Inside Out. I offered free popcorn, which may have been some of the draw. The movie came out this past summer and …

“has received dozens of industry and critics awards. The film received 15 Best Picture, 21 Best Original Screenplay and 40 Best Animated Feature nominations from over 50 different organizations and associations” (according to Wikipedia which cites “All 2015 Film Awards and Nominations Scorecard”. Metacritic.)

The movie opens with the line “Do you ever look at someone and wonder ‘What is going on inside their head?’” That is the introduction of Joy. Joy is a personification of the emotion inside Riley the protagonist’s head. Soon after we meet Joy something goes wrong: the baby starts to cry: “Hi, I’m sadness.”

The movie imagines that these personified emotions work a console in our heads, pushing buttons, recalling memories, creating our emotional landscape. Joy and Sadness are the two dominant emotions with Fear, Disgust, and Anger playing off of them. The tension between the Joy and Sadness is the heart of the movie. Joy believes that sadness is not a useful emotion. Fear keeps us “safe,” disgust keeps us “from being poisoned physically or socially,” and anger “cares deeply about things being fair.” (lines from the movie)

Early in the development in the movie, the plan was to focus on Joy and Fear. The developers thought it was “like the funniest choice.” [http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Inside_Out] When things got stuck, the director decided to change it to Joy and Sadness. The story still has a lot of funny moments, but rather than simply being funny, it is also poignant. It is multi-layers and sophisticated.

Joy, the dominant emotion in Raley’s head, does not see what sadness is for. Thus, the movie becomes an extended answer to the question, “Why is there sadness?” Mystics and poets through the ages have also worried away at that question. The animated answer aligns wonderfully with the wisdom of the ages.

Jelaluddin Rumi says being human is like being a guest house, in which you invite your emotions in like guests. Like an ‘emotion party’ in your head, Rumi imagines all of these feelings as guests we can welcome in, guests that each have something to offer. Rumi says “Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.”

The movie certainly plays out along that theme. In the movie, each emotion takes a turn at the control console. We might ask ourselves at times – why am I letting anger have the controls; maybe I can let someone else drive for a while? We can invite the emotions in and learn from them.

I like this notion of my emotions as guests. I like how that sets my emotions at a distance from my identity. I am not my anger or my sadness. I can say ‘I am not my fear; I have fear right now but I am not my fear.’ I like that part. And in so doing, I can also see my emotions simply as facts – information about my experiences of the world. My body tells me I am hungry – that is a fact. In a similar fashion, when I am sad – my body is telling me information, it just is a fact. I can’t stop it but I can respond to it

So why do we have sadness. Each emotion is a fact, it happens within us. But it has something to offer. In the movie, there is a scene when Joy is trying to help another character cheer up but she can’t do it. She tries tickling her friend, then distracting her friend from his sorrow, then making a game of doing something else. But then Sadness sits down next to the friend and just says stuff like, “You must be really sad.” “That was really important to you.” Joy, meanwhile, is trying to stop Sadness from making their friend more sad. But what sadness is really doing, is helping the friend acknowledge the fact that he is sad.

One of the things that sadness is for it to help us learn empathy and compassion. Sadness is an isolating experience on its own. But when we welcome it in and move through it as if it is real and important, then later our sadness can become a tool of connection in our lives. In the moment, sadness is an isolating experience. Later, our sadness can become a tool of connection. Our sorrows become connected to our joys and that helps us then become more connected to other people.

Kahlil Gibran says your joy is your sorrow unmasked. “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” In the Pixar movie, Joy and Sorrow learn that they are complimentary. All of the emotions, really, are borne from caring and the deep desires of our lives. Our fears and our anger, our grief – all of it is rooted in the same source as our joy.

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ [Gibran continues] and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” In the movie, the personification of Joy tries to keep sorrow at bay constantly. “Here is a chalk circle and your job is to stay inside it and not touch anything!” But by the end, they learn to work together allowing the person to experience richer, fuller emotions by blending them together.

As we grow and mature, our emotional range expands beyond five possibilities. And it is more than just learning degrees of a single emotion like big sadness and little sadness, we learn about the blending of them. This is the second major lesson from that movie and from that Robert Frost poem. First, sadness is an honorable emotion that helps us uncover empathy and compassion for others. Second, by welcoming our sadness, anger, fear, and other ‘negative emotions’ into our experiences as honorable emotions, we gain the next step of blending them.

My recently retired colleague, Mark Belletini says grief comes in hues, the colors of grief are various.

As a pastel artist, I know in my bones that although forest green and gold are both colors, they are wildly different from each other, both in the feelings they evoke and the associations they offer both heart and eye…

In a similar way, as a griever for six decades, I might dwell for a long time after a loss in sorrow, or anger, or regret, or I might move on to more transformative aspects of the grieving process. But all of these hues and shades are truly, if abstractly, contained within the single-syllable word, grief.  Nothing Gold Can Stay, the colors of grief by Mark Belletini, 2015 [pp xii-xiii]

It is almost a matter of expanding our emotional vocabulary. Discovering new words to explain our feelings opens us to nuanced experiences in life. Normally I would have said I feel angry, but actually it is something a little different – and in so naming it that way I can choose a different way to respond. Perhaps it is really regret or embarrassment that you really feel. Or what you once named sadness is really a mix of fear and anger known as alienated. Or maybe you have discovered that happy/sad mix shown at the end of the Inside Out movie. As your emotional vocabulary expands, so too does the range of what your experiences can mean. 

And, as we demonstrate each week with our Joys and Sorrows ritual – a sorrow shared is halved, and a joy shared is doubled. And how many times have you heard someone at the Joys and Sorrows mic say they have something that is both a joy and a sorrow? What we do with our Joys and Sorrows time and how we do it is very meaningful and important.

Spirituality is sometimes defined as ‘what moves you.’ What is it that touches your heart? As a spiritual seeker, when you uncover new meaning or richer meaning in life, there may be an emotional component. Ralph Waldo Emerson called us to pass our experiences through ‘the fire of thought.’ In Emerson’s lexicon, ‘thought’ is not merely analytical reason, it includes intuition as well. A true form of deep spirituality is the exercise of mind and heart on the field of your daily experiences.

So, “nothing gold can stay;” which is why the gold is worth treasuring. But, my there are so many different shades of green to discover! So Eden falls to grief; and each joy, each sorrow, each true deep feeling from within is a shimmer of gold revealing the depths of your love. Sink not into apathy and unfeeling monotony; rise. Though it stinks and burns as your heart breaks anew at each loss or sorrow unbidden, rise. Your grief is hard but worth it. Let your heart love what it will love. Deeper meaning and connections await. Welcome each guest as it arrives.  Nothing gold can stay. So notice as it shines.

In a world without end,
may it be so.