Harmonizing Sadness and Joy

by Craig Thompson on August 19, 2015

5389355486_8ae3459399_oLet me add my voice to those who are praising Pixar’s Inside Out as a great movie for the cross-cultural community. I think we’ll be showing clips of it to expats, repats, and TCKs for a long time to come. (If you’ve not seen it and don’t know what it’s about, I suggest you read Kay Bruner’s discussion of the movie, from a counselor’s point of view.)

I hope that someday Inside Out is made into a Broadway musical. I’d like to hear Sadness and Joy sing a duet at the end.

Dealing with Loss

My wife and son and I saw the film in the theater a few weeks ago. It was rather cathartic, as the past several months have been a time for us, like Riley in the movie, to deal with our emotions—while our emotions learn how to deal with each other. It’s been an especially difficult time for my wife. Her father died in March, and then a brother died last month.

Those events have brought back memories of difficulties we faced while we lived overseas. During our time outside our passport country, we experienced the deaths of my wife’s mother and another brother and of my father.

When you lose loved ones, it can trigger so much emotional confusion. When you live far away from them, a whole other set of complications come into play.

It’s not just losing someone we love, it’s often losing the opportunity to say Goodbye or the ability to grieve together when traveling with the whole family isn’t possible.

When should we go back? Who should make the trip? How long should we stay? What if we don’t meet others’ expectations? What are the rules?

And when sadness comes into the life of the missionary, it is so easy to ask, “Where is my joy?”

Healthy Sadness

In an audio presentation at Member Care Media, Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), discusses the losses experienced by cross-cultural workers and how to deal with the ensuing grief. He tells the story of a Christian worker named John who came to him for counseling. While serving in central Asia, John had experienced both concrete and abstract losses: He had lost his status and effectiveness as a youth pastor in the US. His wife had had two miscarriages. And he and the rest of his team had been forced to evacuate their host country with little hope of returning.

With painful honesty, John revealed:

I know that all things work together for the good. I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength, but it’s not. I know that I’m going to see my unborn children in heaven. I don’t want to commit suicide, but I . . . um . . . wish that I wasn’t alive.

Sweatman went on to talk with John about the way his family had taught him to deal with grief as he grew up, and then helped him learn how to grieve in a healthier way. Healthy sadness, says Sweatman, is the “antidote to depression.” It includes two important steps: acknowledging our losses to God and expressing grief publicly to allow others to “be the arms of God.”

Honest Joy

When John said, “I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength . . .” he’s referring to a verse from Nehemiah 8. But I’m more familiar with the phrase “The joy of the Lord is my strength [clap, clap, clap]” from the peppy song of the same name. What happens when we don’t feel the Lord’s joy? James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2, NIV). Can we be sad or afraid or confused, and still have joy?

There’s another song about joy that is familiar to those who’ve grown up in the church. It repeats over and over the line “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” But what does that joy look like in the face of loss? Is it always a smile? What does that joy sound like in the midst of trials? It is always an upbeat song?

I’m so glad to have come across a new rendition of “I’ve Got the Joy”/”Down in My Heart,” by The Autumn Film (later Page CXVI). Tifah Phillips, the group’s vocalist writes on her blog how she wrote “Joy.” It happened the night of her father’s death, as she sat at the piano, “the only place that felt safe that night to me”:

I remembered my eyes were blurred with tears and I literally began to play the now familiar progression of Joy. I kept cycling through the progression and then, as if it had already been written, I began to sing a different melody to a song I sang in VBS as a child, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. . . .” The truth is that I was terribly and profoundly sad. The reality of grief had not even entirely hit me yet. But at the same moment I had a deep sense of peace. He was no longer in pain. He was no longer sick. He was free from all his ailments and restored. Although I still miss him, I know that God has weaved redemption through death into my father’s story.  That brings me great joy. It was not until grief became a part of my story that I realized that joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.

If Sadness and Joy from Inside Out were to sing a duet, we’d get to hear the harmony of their two voices. But of course, that song would happen inside someone’s head. What might their duet sound like if it were to come out in one voice? I think it might sound something like Phillips’ version of “I’ve Got the Joy.”

(Steve Sweatman, “Good Grief,” Member Care Media; Tifah Phillips, “Joy,” Page CXVI Blog, June 10, 2010)

[photo: “Golden Hearts on Blue,” by Lea Wiertel, used under a Creative Commons license]

This is an adaptation of a post written for ClearingCustoms.net in 2012.

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    This is fantastic Craig. It perfectly puts into words my experience this past month with losing my Grandma. I couldn’t get back to the U.S., and it was tough. I set aside time to process it, and what I found was exactly this: joy mixed with sorrow.

    I journaled all the bad stuff: missing the funeral, not being able to say one last goodbye, not being able to grieve with my extended family, feeling guilt and regret over not being there. And then I journaled all the good stuff: this hurt so badly because my childhood was so unusually GOOD. I came from good, strong stock. Family that loved each other so much that they took vacations with each other (repeatedly!). Family that always packed out Grandma and Grandpa’s house on the holidays. Family that made family, well, fun.

    I came out of that time rejoicing in the gift I had been given. I came out of it still knowing God was good and determined to praise His name no matter what. That in itself was a great gift I didn’t know I would receive when I sat down with my sadness.

    • Not being able to go to a funeral has shown me how much we rely on that part of our cultural traditions to deal with death. So many emotions come into play during the service, seeing family, at the graveside. But it sounds as if you did a good job processing your emotions in spite of being far away. Thanks for sharing.

  • Casey

    Craig, Thank you so much for this post. We’ve experienced so many losses (miscarriages and the deaths of both family and friends here and in the US) over these past six and a half years. For me, grieving the losses with the Lord came easily. However, I wanted to honor Him by having joy with my peers. I felt joy and grief should not be intertwined publicly. I was wrong. How comforting it would have been, how much healthier, to have had the comfort of God in the arms of the church! How good to learn that public grief neither dishonors the Lord nor is an indication of joylessness. I’m sure this post will bless many on their journey with grief. Thank you, especially for the song.

    Elizabeth, I couldn’t help but think of your “both/and” blog. Yet again, that post has blessed me!

    • Thanks for joining the conversation. It is so good to realize that we can honor God with our sadness. . . . And it is a great song, isn’t it?

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