The Exact Right Word for Sadness

faith and depressionIt’s a 45 minute drive to my in-laws’ farm, and once you turn off of 169, it’s not long before it’s sprawling fields and red barns and sleek, chestnut horses.

I drove there on Saturday, and I kept noticing the contrast: gold-brown corn stalks against the endless gray sky. The tree branches are thinning, leaves disappearing into dust. It’s like the color is draining from the whole wide world.

I have been feeling a little emptied out lately, a little down. It’s somewhere between depressed and Depression, this gray unnamable feeling, and I keep thinking that if I could just put the right word on it, then maybe I could get a handle on things: Melancholy? Discouragement? Exhaustion? Acedia? I try them all out but none seem to fit exactly.

Behind me, in the car, my boys watched Finding Nemo on the little TVs strapped to the backs of the headrests. Liam started saying “I love you” this week, and I want to keep it, just the sound of it. Just the adorable, spontaneous newness of it.

On the other hand, Dane has discovered the word stupid and the fantastic, cathartic punch of it when he’s angry. I keep catching him muttering it under his breath. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “Let’s try to think of another word,” I tell him. “How about, ‘Oh rats?’”

“No mom,” he says. “I don’t want to say that.”

When I say no to something, he’s started shouting back, “Stupid Mom!” I march him over to the stairs for a time out. “We do not call people stupid,” I say with clenched teeth, and I don’t know how to teach him that words are powerful, wild things. That they can make and unmake, hurt and heal, create and destroy. So I stick him there and set the timer for two long minutes while he flails and cries.

On the way to the farm, thankfully, Dane stayed involved in the movie, slack jawed and wide eyed as Nemo got captured, again, by that diver. We passed lakes, gray and smooth as stone, and I tried to think of the exact right word for the landscape of my heart: Downhearted. Low. Dispirited. Lost.


In high school we used to say, Count it alllllll joy in this annoying sing-songy voice.  It was that first fragment of a Bible verse (what else): “Count it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

So we said it over and over again to one another, to ourselves. Said it while running 15-minutes-straight around the indoor track during P.E. Said it early in the morning when we showed up for Bible study and when we walked out after school, weighed down with textbooks and expectations.

I remember being entirely sincere in all of this. I remember being able to take something sharp in my hand and turn it enough to see it glimmer.

But somewhere down the line, I lost my talent for it. The crow rises up from  the sharp-cut field, and instead of seeing beauty, I see darkness.


To combat the blues, I stopped by Target last week and picked up a brown bottle of 300 little Vitamin D supplements. Some chocolate. A young adult book that looked quirky and fun. I bought some new music on iTunes and burned a mix CD for the car.

It is a totally American response to discouragement: let’s put a little bit of stuff on it and see if it goes away.

The CD that I compiled includes a blend of folk and acoustic and a cautious bit of worship music from a band whose lyrics somehow always find their way to my stone-gray heart.

We’re blessed we’re loved/Our hearts and souls/We now rejoice, rejoice. They sing it again and again, and I keep replaying the song because I am struck by the word, rejoice. Not a noun, something to be attained – joy – but an intransitive verb. Rejoice. Something you do. An action. A response. A choice. A movement.

And maybe the exact right word is not the one that names my own obscure emptiness but the one that combats it. Rejoice.

After all, we’re learning at our house that words have the power to make. To unmake. And maybe the thing that cures you is not so much naming your feeling but naming the truth.

The minivan cuts through the stark landscape and the chorus keeps repeating, bright against the bleakness. I sing along, right out loud, this thing that I don’t feel. I’m putting it right out there, this little tiny spark of faith.

Maybe one day, when I’m least expecting it, the spark will just catch. And the entire world will explode into light.

56 thoughts on “The Exact Right Word for Sadness

  1. Choosing to rejoice has been such a challenge in this season of parenting with a cranky infant who seems to battle me at every turn. Just this morning I was trying to feed him his bottle since he was really due for it. But he kept screaming at me, and I forced myself to look at his red little face and say that I loved him because I would have otherwise lost my mind. He eventually went down for a nap! I had to force myself to love and rejoice in him, but man, it was tough when he’s screaming like that.

  2. Addie, I don’t have words. What my family is facing right now, how I feel sitting alone at work, trying to name the grief I experience. There’s this cacophony of emotion and noise flitting through my mind and it all stilled when I came upon the word “rejoice” here. I don’t know how to do that right now but I will join you in trying. Much love to you, friend.

    1. I don’t really know how either. But saying it out loud is a start I think. Love you.

  3. Addie, you capture again here the tension of the honest brokenness and good hope. Thank you for this. Your voice means so much to me.

  4. And maybe the exact right word is not the one that names my own obscure emptiness but the one that combats it. Rejoice. <— THIS.
    The rejoicing vs joy. You will never know how timely that was, nor how healing. Thank you, friend.

  5. I’m not much for religion, although I’m willing to listen.

    I just wanted to let you know that I think you are a beautiful writer. I do it for a living and always appreciate coming across someone who is evocative as you.

    Keep it up.

    1. Thanks so much Tony. That was very kind, and I’m glad you found your way here (even if the content isn’t really your thing.) Thanks again.

  6. This is so true to the biblical witness, Addie. The church has so often gotten it wrong. We have shouted the “rejoice” words over the top of the sorrow feelings, trying to glaze them over or pretend they didn’t exist. But the Bible? It shows people rejoicing in the midst of their sorrow. They felt both. And often, the rejoicing was more of a discipline than a feeling. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5) There is question, there is downcast, and yet there is rejoicing.

    I do hope, truly hope, that your last line becomes true for you, “Maybe one day, when I’m least expecting it, the spark will just catch. And the entire world will explode into light.”

    1. “And often, the rejoicing was more of a discipline than a feeling.” Yes. Thank you for this insight Stephanie.

  7. I used to be afraid of those nameless feelings. I covered them up with righteous words. Now I know that God created all emotion… and felt it, too. That is why I rejoice.

    1. “I used to be afraid of those nameless feelings. I covered them up with righteous words.” Oh Lord, so did I. Thanks Tereasa.

  8. “I remember being able to take something sharp in my hand and turn it enough to see it glimmer. But somewhere down the line, I lost my talent for it. ” Exactly. What a good, thoughtful post.

  9. I am right there with you about the power of naming. It’s like if I can just find the right word, that will give me some additional measure of control. In reality, just knowing the diagnosis isn’t anything like being cured or even knowing the cure. I know this, but I still try to find that word. Maybe I’m also looking for the wrong word.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. Yes. I agree. Naming is powerful, but I love how you said it: “In reality, just knowing the diagnosis isn’t anything like being cured or even knowing the cure.” Such a tension there. Thanks for the insight.

  10. I love love love what you say about the power of words. They do, indeed, have the power to heal, to hurt, to build and to destroy. Thought you might enjoy this, from my book Who Needs Words: “In the college where I trained as a minister, I grew very familiar with the profile of this great Reformer. There was a stone bust of Martin Luther which used to move mysteriously around the college from room to room, on one occasion landing up on my desk in the very early hours of the morning! All this means that if Martin Luther were to come back, I would recognise him instantly. If he did, it would be my great pleasure to present him with a T-shirt, preferably in a nice loud colour, with the legend peccator fortiter on the front. I hope he would wear it. I think it would suit him.
    If he wouldn’t, though, I would gladly do so. I have stuck my neck out in order to provoke thought, discussion and reflection on this complex business of communication. Some of my words will intrigue, some will stimulate, and others will quite simply annoy. In writing it all, I have sought, if anything, to sin boldly.
    Who needs words? We all do, since that’s the way we were made. We need to use them, understand them, invent and reinvent them – and, in so doing, we shall make many mistakes and describe many new realities.
    Read the book, wear the T-shirt, but for God’s sake keep talking.”

    Keep on writing, please!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Richard. Your book sounds interesting. 🙂 I’ll have to check it out. Thanks again.

  11. Dear Addie,

    I don’t remember how I found your blog, and/or I could say that He led me to it. No matter what, I am so grateful. I spent the last 3 days reading every article. I don’t want to get long here, but have 2 daughters that have been talking evangelical for the past 2 years. Because of this, I almost lost my faith altogether, and so much of it made me sad beyond measure.
    My daughters were raised Catholic, and after a divorce and a move, they heard about a new kind of church. I was willing to go and check it out. They loved it, and I felt so out of place, and was getting nothing out of it, coming from years of kneeling, sitting, and certain prayers that I loved. My youngest went off to a Christain camp, and came back changed forever. She was on fire for Jesus, and believed she should go into World Missions. My middle daughter made no friends her freshman year of college, went on a Christian retreat her sophomore years, came home like a happy zombie, also on fire for Jesus, and broke up with her boyfriend, in my opinion, a boy who was so heartbroken, and didn’t understand. My youngest is now in her freshman year at Bible college, and my middle daughter went to Africa this summer for 5 weeks. We have been through so much together, and have been so close. I now feel a slight wall between us, because they don’t feel that I know, and am doing what I should to get to heaven. I feel so much like you in how we should experience God in our daily life. I’ve tried confronting them both, but that ended in disaster. They were so defensive. I now just continue to love them. I really don’t know what else to do.
    I could go on and on, but ultimately just wanted to thank you for your blog. It has brought me much comfort and peace.
    Thank you for listening!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Mary, and for reading. I’m glad that this blog has helped a little bit.

      The things you wrote made me so sad, but they also didn’t surprise me. There is a mentality that is particularly rampant in evangelical youth culture that this is THE WAY to be a Christian and that everything else is lifeless and dry. That this is “relationship” and everything else is “religion.” I remember feeling that way at sixteen. There is something to it that appeals to the larger-than-lifeness of youth; it gives a clear channel for all that emotion.

      I’m sure you’re daughters aren’t trying to hurt you: I think that they feel it big in their hearts, this version of Jesus. Sometimes the version of faith that we grew up with feels stale by the time we’re older, and we either reject the whole thing, or we go looking for some new way to experience it. I’m headed in the opposite direction of your daughters: I grew up speaking evangelical and now it feels a little tinny and hollow to me. I need more prayers and kneeling.

      For your daughters, it sounds like this is their way of making their faith their own. As they grow and mature and get disillusioned in small but defining ways, it will become clear that other traditions have value too, and they will need them. I’m so convinced that faith is cyclical. That we experience God in different ways at different times. So much depends on seasons.

      I pray that your relationships will grow stronger and bigger and deeper even in the face of all of this hard stuff. When they speak evangelical to you, know that what they are trying to say is “love.” It just doesn’t always come across that way.

      Thanks so much for sharing and for being here.

      1. Thank you for replying. In the beginning I tried to be into the evangelical way, just so we could stay close. I now know that closeless is the love we feel for each other, and not the religion. I am now myself, and even though I am not as “godly” as they say some of their friends parents are, I am here for them, and that has never changed.

        Until I found your blog, I felt like such an outsider. I thought I was the only one who thought the way I did. It is such a refreshing relief to read your blog!

        1. “I am here for them, and that has never changed.” Sounds a lot like God to me.

  12. Once again, you’ve got me on the brink of tears. Evidence of pain inside the rejoicing, scars that don;t ever completely go away. Tears. Thank you.

  13. Addie,
    This is beautiful.
    Yes, rejoice.
    And, again, I say, rejoice.
    Like the Jesus prayer, the breathing in and exhaling out, may it be a ceaseless exercise in stretching and shaping us.
    Thank you for this.

  14. “the thing that cures you is not so much naming your feeling but naming the truth” yes yes yes yes yes. Thank you for reminding me why I (used to and will again) write poetry.

  15. I have been actively seeking and working at finding joy through my blog writings each day. It is harder than I expected because I too, used to be the high schooler who said “Count it all Joy!” and Pollyanna’d my way through tuff stuff.

    That weird feeling may also be described as grieving. The depressed but not depression is where I was living and decided to pull myself out by blogging on the joy subject. Grief about ended jobs, ministries and seasons…it is still grief.

    I like your version better…rejoicing. yes!

    1. Thanks for sharing Susie. Yes, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? To find the joy even in the grief or the sadness or whatever middle-place we’re in. Grace.

  16. Hi Addie,

    your writing is soooo beautiful!!!
    I have a recommendation for how you’re feeling, which l know might sound patronizing. I understand that depression is not just something that 1950s doctors shake their heads at because these women-folk just need to get back in that kitchen and start cooking harder! I do know that for myself though, it wasn’t vitamin D – it was iron. I’m a grad student and therefore am always tired. When I take iron, I’m still tired, but that awful mind fog is mostly gone, and I don’t find myself slipping into that pattern of depressing thoughts/self-doubt that I used to. I’m not saying it’s a cure all, but if it helps you (or anyone else) like it helps me?

    And thank you for your beautiful words!

  17. I stop into your blog from time to time and no matter what your focus, I always seem to relate in some way. For me (someone who knows nothing about, or understands writing/blogging) that is unbelievably important. I absolutely LOVE how real your writing is. I feel like I am sitting at your kitchen table, coloring with Dane’s crayons, drinking your “sub-par coffee” and you’re talking directly to me. Capturing, as usual.


    1. It makes me so happy that you stop by here every now and then. So glad that it relates a bit. (Also, it’s been far too long since you guys have been at our kitchen table. We need to remedy that soon!)

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