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I did the math and realized we’re eighteen months in. By now we’re well into the season we thought would be post-pandemic. But the news reminds us otherwise, with continued daily news of hospitalization levels, boosters, the latest status of the masking wars, and more. A lot of conversations that begin “How are you doing?” are really asking, still, “How are you surviving this pandemic?,” and the return to school, and the endlessness of it all.
The pandemic malaise still grips us, all these month later.
The Netflix series Bojack Horseman coined a term that feels relevant to this: fetishizing our own sadness. I wonder if we are, some of us, fetishizing this despair.
Do you know Bojack? He’s the title character of this series—a horse. But the weirdness of him walking on two legs, sleeping in a bed, and living among humans in this animated series soon fades into the background amidst other characters that include cats, deer, mice, and more.
At the start of the series, Bojack is a washed-up actor, and he and virtually every other character stumble through six seasons with one misstep after another. It’s anything but a morality tale. These characters have heart, and you come to care about them, but not because they get (virtually) anything right.
So it’s no wonder we find Bojack and his writer friend Diane saying to each other, in season three, that the other will never be happy. Even if things go their way, they won’t be able to enjoy the win. Bojack doesn’t like the way the conversation is going, and he says to Diane, “I’m not like you, okay? I don’t fetishize my own sadness.” Diane reacts with surprise. “I don’t fetishize my own sadness,” she says, and storms off. And the conversation devolves from there—which is not unusual in this series.
That phrase struck me when I first heard it a few weeks ago. It was coined well before COVID appeared on our radar. But it feels relevant to a pandemic-soaked world, in which sadness surfaces so easily. To fetishize sadness is to get attached to it. To wallow in it and take a perverse pleasure in doing that. To define yourself that way. Take a look at this interesting Reddit thread discussing this very question, inspired by Bojack.
Have we fallen into this? It would be plenty easy. Especially in this season when we’ve fallen backward with the delta variant. It’s obvious to me that sadness and anger are more a part of me today than they were eighteen months ago. Do I wallow in it? I hope not. But I’m not sure my friends would say they haven’t seen that in me.
I’ve known people who seem to carry despair with them like PigpenTM carries dust, in the Peanuts comic strip. You don’t dare ask them, “How are things?” because they’ll tell you! You’ll wish you hadn’t made room for their long list of ills.
I say this and immediately have to qualify that statement. I don’t mean to minimize the reality and experience of mental illness such as clinical depression and the ways that it affects persons’ effects and interactions. Here’s a great piece in which a person with depression claims the Bojack concept of “fetishizing our sadness,” in what feels like a life-giving way. Similarly, I have a personal friend who shares her rocky journey with mental illness openly and honestly; her vulnerability strengthens her and keeps it real for those who surround her. Please don’t read my words here as a criticism of the ways we each find our way through the challenges life throws at us.
Still, it’s a worthy question. Are some of us finding ourselves mired in a place of sadness that doesn’t need to hold us quite so tightly? Is there something in us that loves the continuation of this crisis? Have we fallen into a pattern of focusing on what’s hard, rather than noticing and delighting in the wonders that also surround us on every side? Have we—especially we church leaders—gotten stuck in the things that are changed, and frustrating, and lost?
My good friend, Cindy Hickman, newly retired, has set herself a 30-day challenge to notice goodness, every day, and journal about it. Why? Because she was finding herself angry and sad and looking for the next disaster, the newest calamity. “It was blinding me to what was good,” she says. “We were born from God’s goodness, but we’ve wandered from that path.”
The Book of Common Prayer includes these words in the order for evening prayer: “You (God) are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices.” Those words have often challenged me, when I’m in a place of hurting. Challenged me in a good way.
I don’t think that means we are never to express our sadness. It is real and it is worthy. But I hope I can remember to lift my eyes and thoughts to the things that are pure, and are lovely, and of good report (Philippians 4.8), so that the cloud that surrounds me as I go through the world is not dusty like Pigpen’s but—at least some of the time—shimmering, with hope and purpose and joy.
As I’ve been writing, a couple of songs have come to mind; maybe they’ll speak to you, too.
J.J. Heller’s “Back Home”
Don’t let your eyes get used to darkness
the light is coming soon
Don’t let your heart get used to sadness
put your hope in what is true
Lay your sorrows on the ground
it’s time to come back home
Cloud Cult’s “Through the Ages”
If ever I can’t see the magic around me
please take my hands off my eyes
I doubt Bojack Horseman and his friend Diane Nguyen could bring themselves to sing anything close to these words! But I’m grateful for the church that has taught me to. With as happy a voice as I can muster, day by day.