Dear Lauren,

Life just seems so hard. Sometimes I get so sad about the whole thing—my lousy little life.  Any advice?

It’s hard for me to answer your question without more details about what, exactly, you don’t like, why you don’t like it, and how it makes you feel, etc., but what I love about your question is that it’s general enough to help lots and lots of people who read this column, because my answer can be general enough to cover the many reasons we all can and do feel lousy about the miserable parts of our lives.

That’s the first part of my answer to you, by the way: anyone whose eyes are reading this has felt exactly as you do at one point or another in their own lives, or at many points, consistently, throughout their lives.  There’s no other way to put it: life is hard.  And we all have parts of our lives we don’t like.

When my clients tell me, “I’m depressed because I don’t have kids yet,” or “I’m depressed because I have so many people to take care of and not enough time to care for them all properly,” or “I’m depressed because my parents are so cold towards me,” or “I’m depressed because my parents are so in my face all the time,” the very first thing I say to them is: “Okay, so you’re sad.  It’s okay to be sad.  Sometimes we, as human beings, will be sad.  And this is one of those times.  Accept that sadness.  Say to yourself, ‘The sadness feels yucky.  But the sadness isn’t bad.  The sadness is just sadness, and right now I feel sad.  Okay, so I feel sad.’  Accepting the sadness as part of your life now, instead of trying to fight it or ignore it or shove it under the proverbial rug will lift part of the burden off your shoulders.  So you feel sad; welcome to the human condition.  The sadness feels yucky, but it’s not bad.  It’s telling you something.”

That’s the second part: the sadness is telling you that something, maybe, should change.  This is where you get to do some creative thinking about your life and your relationships.  Sometimes, you can change the situation.  Sometimes the situation is unchangeable, and only your attitude is within your purview of influence.

As much as none of us enjoys the difficult aspects of each of our lives, I think the parts which make us sad probably make us grow.  They make us stop and think, “What could I be doing better which could, possibly, make this difficulty abate?  Is there something I can change in me which will help me weather this storm better?  Is there something I should change in me which will change the situation?  What is the reason for my sadness, and how can I make it change?”

We can learn a tremendous amount from the world around us.  The other day, I bought a succulent, healthy-looking organic cilantro plant.  Any of you who also love cilantro (and I know people either love it or absolutely detest it) know that a small pot of the herb won’t thrive for long indoors; you have to re-pot it outside, in a larger container.  I bought it on a Thursday.  By Friday afternoon, Mr. Cilantro Plant was lookin’ kinda droopy.  So, ten minutes before sundown on Friday, in the middle of a downpour, I yanked on my rain boots, grabbed a kitchen spoon, dashed outside, quickly dug a hole in the messy dirt, and stuck my little plant friend in, confident it would grow, thrive, and blossom.

As I worked like a dog (literally, I felt like a dog digging a hole and burying my bone), it occurred to me that we are just like herbs.  You stick a beautiful, green, living plant into gross, black, dirty dirt, and that’s what makes it grow.  And when it rains and the dirt becomes really icky and sticky and muddy, that waters the plant and nourishes it and gives it life.

The sad parts, the messy parts of life, are not bad.  They’re there to make us grow.

Of course, if you feel sad most of the time, and it’s been going on for a couple of weeks or more, you may have depression.  Depression is a medical issue, much like having a headache or having a sprained arm.  If you have a headache, taking Tylenol is reasonable, rational, and normal.  If you have a sprained arm, going to the doctor to have him or her examine it, and wearing a sling or a brace are reasonable, rational, normal steps to take.  Similarly, with depression, a medical issue, going to a medical doctor is completely normal and a very good idea.  The doctor can assess whether you just need to talk to someone (like me – not a scary idea, at all. I promise!), or whether medicine might make you feel better.

Sometimes my clients who have the symptoms of depression are afraid to take medicine or to see a physician.  I explain to them that going to the doctor about depression—about pain in your emotions—is like going to the doctor when you have persistent stomach pains, or recurring ear infections, or a sore throat.  And taking medicine is like taking medicine for any other medical issue; would you not take antibiotics if you had strep?  Would you refuse chemotherapy for cancer?

If your sadness is deeper and more intense than “just regular sadness,” then one very important point is this: you must tell a trusted adult right away if you ever feel like you want to hurt yourself in any way. And you must also contact a qualified mental health professional (a social worker, a psychologist, a psychiatrist) for treatment.  Promise me that!        

Whether you’re actually depressed, or just have the regular sadness that all humans get, I have another question for you: what do you love doing?  What do you really, passionately, love doing?  If your answer is “Nothing,” then I’ll tell you: “Find something!”  Find something that makes you feel alive, energized, and happy.  And do more of that.  Find 20 things that make you feel alive, energized, and happy, and do them as often as you can. 

By the way, if your sadness is true depression, then you might feel like there is nothing in life which can make you happy.  Nothing at all you feel you’d like to do.  If you feel that way, there’s an absolute, clear clue that you should visit your doctor.  Depression feels like all the color in the world just drained out.

As I write these lines, the sun is shining, there’s a soft breeze blowing, the birds are chirping as they assemble their nests, and lovely daffodils have finally pushed their way out of the thawing ground.  And for a brief moment, as I take in that scene, I forget about my own personal worries and woes and feel uplifted, hopeful, even inspired.  We all have woes and worries.  That’s the package God gives us with the gift of life.  But there are also small and large moments of grace and light that come with the deal.  Notice those.  Really revel in those.  And use the inertia of those high notes to help you swing through the rest of the cycle, when the pendulum inevitably plummets.