The Confusing Irony of Being Thankful for Sadness This Thanksgiving

I’ve been listening to a podcast called WTF with Marc Maron for more than eight years. Two new episodes are released each week, and for the past four years it’s the only series to which I’ve been devoted. No other podcasts. No television shows. Just WTF every Monday and Thursday.

About eighteen months ago I listened to the very first episode from 2009, and have listened to each subsequent episode. Yesterday I listened to an episode from 2011 with Adam Carolla.

As Maron and Carolla recounted Carolla’s unlikely journey to fame and fortune in Hollywood, they spent a lot of time discussing Carolla’s parents. I’d heard him talk about his parents before and he described their parenting style as “benign neglect.” They weren’t physically or verbally abusive. Being abusive would have required effort. His parents expended no effort in his upbringing. He says that everything he has become is from what he has gleaned on his own, with no input from his parents.

Because of the extreme hands-off style his parents employed, Carolla said he felt no emotional bond with his parents. He said that he would have preferred to have his dad put out a cigarette on his arm once a month. At least then his dad would have shown he felt something, even if it was bad. Instead, both of his parents never seemed to feel a thing – good or bad – toward him. His existence was incidental.

I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about Carolla’s point; that even feeling something bad was better than feeling nothing at all. At first, it seems counterintuitive. Who wants to feel something bad? Isn’t the point of alcohol to take those bad feelings and numb them? Isn’t that part of the reason sleep is so great? It gives us a chance to shut off our minds and think of nothing.

I’ve been thinking about, and experiencing, sadness for the past few months. I’ve been lucky that my sadness hasn’t been persistent, in that it doesn’t dominate every second of every day. But it’s always just under the surface, and a particular thought, or word, or picture, or even smell can bring it right back up to the surface. And I’ve learned that each individual experience of sadness is fleeting. I’m not going to experience the most intense sadness every second of every day forever. So if I can just hold on, sit in the sadness for a bit, and wait until I come out on the other side, then it’s manageable.

It’s quite coincidental that I listened to Carolla’s experience the day before Thanksgiving, a day that exists for us to think about parts of our life for which we should be thankful.

This year I’ll think of all of the things for which I try to express gratitude every day – my kids, my family, special friends, my health – but a giant part of my gratitude has been replaced by sadness this year.

And sometimes it’s difficult to keep that sadness from consuming me.

But as I thought about Carolla’s benign neglect, it occurred to me that this year maybe I could even be thankful for the sadness.

Of course, I wish I weren’t sad. I wish things were different. But I’m sad because I lost one of the most valuable things that any person can ever have: a loving, caring parent whose time, attention, and devotion helped make me who I am.

There are cheesy sayings that capture the same sentiment: It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Or don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.

No matter how I think of it, the point is the same. The happiness I experienced all my life as a result of having such great parents is much better than the nothingness Carolla’s parents exhibited. That’s obvious. But this Thanksgiving I won’t forget that even the sadness I’m feeling is better than nothingness.

We’re never sad from losing something unimportant. The sadness emphasizes the importance of what we’ve lost. It’s a reminder of what we had.

So when I feel the sadness today, I’m going to try to be thankful for it because it means I had someone great.

And even though she’s gone, I’ll never lose what she gave to me.

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