Tenderhearted sadness – can we outsource that to elves from Cuba, like the job my printer just refused to do? Could we ask a set of albino triplets floating face-up in some weird Police Department tank of amniotic fluid to just take care of it? How about Jesus, with his Prince-y eyes? Could he be the man to take on the task?
Me? Who, me? Do you want me to feel the tenderhearted sadness? Oh, I'm sorry, but that simply won't be even a little bit possible until I've met this big deadline I’m working under, and then I'm afraid we're looking at after first-quarter reports are in. Actually, you might want to take that request over to the nonprofit down the street. They’re used to doing shitty jobs for no money, so it could be a good fit.
Tender-hearted sadness is the death of the cocktail party, the tiny, tiny print that never makes it into the holiday letter, the parents missing from the card that gets sent out with the child smiling alone. It’s the pudgy kid at the door, letting you go first, because he’s kind, and you’re bustling along full of projects and distractions. Tenderhearted sadness knows pretty much no one’s going to stop and ask, but still, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Projecting cheerful confidence squashes tenderhearted sadness.
Shooting rays of ruby red rage chases it away.
Depression coats it in thick layers of fudge frosting, crude oil, or foundation make up, till it can’t breathe.
Oh tenderhearted sadness! You are the catch in the in-breath, a crochet hook grazing the bare muscles pumping blood and life. You're a toothbrush scraping off the don't-give-a-fuck, keeping the rot at bay. Heart-rot is a real thing, and tenderhearted sadness eradicates it.
For whom? For my own sweet pup, who comes to lick my nose in the morning, all freckles and hyena-breath? Sure. But also: for every dog, cat, mouse, and bunny compressed into some wire cubicle, oozing shampoo-wounds or cancer-cells for every minute of his or her short, miserable life. For the dairy cows chained in barns all winter long. For all of us humans, deciding that our health, our enjoyment, our shiny, shiny hair is worth these miseries. Tenderhearted sadness clears the surfaces of the heart for change and action, but also sees the inextricability of the patterns that we all help set.
I reach for my heart-brush, heart-scrubber, heart-router, heart-fucking-jackhammer. No, no, no! I will not settle into the basic urge just to give the world the finger all day long, even though it is fucking 5 degrees, or whatever, and Chloe is whining that supersonic whine that is like having 100,000 mosquitoes directly inside your brain, and if I were actually Bene Gesserit, I would have killed her with my voice already, so it's good I'm not. Instead I say, Oh, Chloe! You're desperate, just in case we never let you run free again, but maybe by now you know us well enough to think shampoo experiments aren't just around the corner? I turn from dog-murdering sci-fi witch, to something human, just by hearing in her voice something that shows up in my own:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
LET ME LET ME LET ME
GET WHAT I WANT THIS TIME
Morrissey! Sometimes you are a genius of tenderhearted sadness.
Being a genius of tenderhearted sadness is part of what it takes to be a good therapist. This Behavioral Health stuff sometimes feels like a Hoover Dam on the basic task of just feeling the fucking feelings, already. When we get very busy Modifying the Behavior to Yield Better Results, I wonder if we are also just going NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH about the underlying hurt? We are building little ice-fishing huts on the frozen lake, pretending July will never come, and sink the whole construct under eely waters. Maybe July comes and we’ve somehow learned to swim, to settle into contact with the water and dolphin around. May it be so. But also maybe, we’ve been so proud of our habit-modifications, sitting there on the frozen surface, that we’ve neglected to ask what will happen when the whole thing unfreezes. In the summer around here, you can see people’s ice-fishing huts sitting around the edges of their vegetable gardens like galvanized outhouses on sled-skids. The wise fisher knows the different states of the heart, and how to navigate them, each in season.
Tenderhearted sadness undermines any kind of posture. I am busy doesn't stand a chance. I am doing a fine job just keels over sideways and goes to sleep. I'll never get it right somehow can't even contain the majesty of failure encompassed by tenderhearted sadness. It wants to, but just when it thinks it’s closing the deal, Sacred Heart rays of beauty and magnitude come bursting through, and the deal is off. Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t want us settling for some crap emo story, listening to that Smith’s album for the twenty-sixth time today. It wants us to get off our duffs and let it guide us into connection with that kid holding the door, that ray of yellow light piercing the forest before setting behind the old-folks home, that impulse to reach out and peel a clementine for the friend who’s always preparing everyone else’s food.
Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t care about whether your plan will end in three people bopping around a gloomy church basement. It wants you to try anyway, to bridge the gaps of isolation that keep us feeling alone and afraid. Tenderhearted sadness would prefer you to be ridiculous in the service of kindness, all day long, rather than careful in the pursuit of being right and looking good. It sends weird gifts in used envelopes across the country, still vaguely wreathed in glue-gun strings. It plays a stupid dance tune, hoping someone else will figure out how to shuffle-hop to it, and feel better.
Tenderhearted sadness is one civilian name of what Buddhists call bodhicitta, the awakened heart dwelling in all sentient beings, flashing forth like lightning from within the night of our misapprehensions about self and other. It's there, shining all along, even when we prefer to be mesmerized by shithole comments and fucked-up missile scares. Tenderhearted sadness is the gateway to recognizing ourselves for what we really are, and to acting skillfully in the world. Sometimes it sounds very much like Fuck it, I’m doing this thing, because no one else will, and it needs done. Sometimes it’s quieter, agreeing to offer refuge to some long-hounded horror that no one’s been willing to tuck into bed.
Always, the heart can come clean.
Always, where there’s sadness, there’s an opening.
Always, whatever’s kept sadness at bay, changes and ends.
Might as well agree to become a harbor.
Might as well scrape the barnacles off that hull with a stiff brush.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.