“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

Research consistently suggests that emotions are nothing more than byproducts of whatever brain chemistry, hormones or gut bacteria our bodies are experiencing at the time.

I tell this to my therapist.

Sure, she says. But they’re also real.

I’m tired of writing about people dying – another person in my world has exited unexpectedly – I think I shall instead write about sadness. About how, even with all the knowledge science has imparted, when despair has its hands wrapped around your neck, you’re not thinking, “Gosh, I sure have nightmarish PMS this month,” or, “Maybe I should consider eating more fermented foods,” so much as you just want to breathe.

Man, our brains can be jacked up.

Even with science and Google, I don’t know why a self-destructive streak inhabits some of us. I don’t know why the impulse toward self-preservation varies. I don’t know why some people move through life as though contentment is part of their DNA and some of us can’t stop obsessing over the whys and hows of survival.

I do know that when it comes to shaking sadness and shifting toward that elusive inner peace, certain things – exercise, medication, meditation, writing, love, God – work for some people. And that when the reasons for a person’s pain exist outside them – maybe they’ve lost a loved one or been diagnosed with an incurable physical disease or otherwise exist in a place anyone can see is hallmarked with hopelessness – we can understand why they’d be down. The thoughtful among us are more likely to reach out, to ask, “How are you? How can I help?”

But when a person’s life appears marvelous from the outside, on social media, for example, or while smiling over beers – when they have all the right things, health and friends and a decent job and a home, and yet still wake up and go to bed with sadness like a brick in the brain, well, that’s tricky. Because we have no way of seeing it, of knowing to offer help to someone whose answer to, “How are you?” should, by all rights, be, “Great.” And it’s embarrassing to feel so sad when your life is so good, so much better than most of the world’s. What’s wrong with you that you should be moping around without reason?

(Our brains can be really jacked up.)

(Maybe you need to eat more fermented food.)

* * *

The small Despair of who I am and where I am now.
The Despair that still can be resisted, 
By the writing of a few awkward lines 
Early in the morning. 

– From “Despair of the Early Morning” by Shalom Freedman

I am alive and, well, it’s true I have been very sad lately, what with all the people going out of the world and my worries about my son’s survival and the collective anxiety about health care, climate change and various other doomsday scenarios as filtered through the weird political cruelty of our Republican leaders, and it’s true that I know that senseless desire to drive one’s car off a cliff, but this is not me, not now; I have words, instead, and if this post goes over the edge, they are not nearly as mighty as a sword after all and easy to pick up.

We can’t always see the sadness in other people. And even if we see it, we can’t necessarily fix it any more than those of us without training could mend a shattered bone or perform brain surgery. No matter how badly we might want to. But we can ask, “How are you?,” listen closely to the answer, be tributaries into a larger river of care and kindness. And if you’re the one being asked, know you don’t have to say, “Great.” You can say, “I’m really fucking sad and I don’t know why.” It’s okay.

* * *

“How To Write A Note” from This American Life