I remember the day during the first semester of my junior year at the University of Texas at Austin, I was going through the typical turmoil and struggles of a college student—a rough relationship break-up, figuring out my future, and other concerns— I had hit a low point. So I called my rabbi and mentor for some advice.
“I’m depressed,” I said.
I expected to hear some Jewish wisdom about how there is never cause for despair, or an encouraging phrase to point me toward the path to happiness, but instead he answered. “Good, feel depressed!”
I was momentarily puzzled. Then he clarified his advice. “Feel bad from 10 to 10:05 p.m. (or another set period)—but the rest of the time, remember you have a purpose, a job to do here, and be happy.”
I decided to try the seemingly simple recipe, to designate 5 minutes every night to feeling sad and when that period was over, to push away any negative thoughts that came my way. In addition to exercising more control, the practice helped in handling sadness and taught me the benefit of setting aside times for guiding certain emotions.
Of course, such general advice is not meant to be a solution to clinical depression or more serious bouts of despondency. But in this case, the method of “set times for sadness,” provided me with an important lesson about driving away destructive thoughts. It also exposed some tricks of the mind: You can walk around all day with angst beneath the surface, bothering you while you should be productive or feel joyful. Yet when that prescribed period of reflection arrives, the time to really reflect—to face negative thoughts head-on—staying focused for even 5 minutes is not so easy.
Suddenly, when the designated time arrived, things don’t seem all that bad. The mind wants to escape, to relax and watch a show, or do something more pleasurable. When it counts, feeling sadness takes effort. There is an explanation for this too—but we’ll save that. The flip side to the effort, however, is that if you can stay calm and focused for those 5 minutes and utilize the time for introspection—determining the source for those feelings and experiencing true sadness—the destructive emotions work their way out your system and won’t invade the mind as often.
An Added Dimension of Joy:
Years later, after reading through the classic Chassidic book Tanya, which addressed these methods in more detail, I better understood the intricacies and benefits of channeling sadness at the appropriate time. The process was not only to purge the mind and heart of burden but if practiced properly, could be used as fuel to reach a greater happiness.
The commentaries on Ecclesiastes describe this emotion as “a light which comes out of darkness.” A common interpretation of this Hebrew phrase proposes that the previous existence of darkness enhances the current recognition of light. In a psychological framework it’s like saying, “after going through difficult times, the good times become more meaningful.”
The deeper explanation, however, is that the darkness itself gives birth to a new type of light; when we experience true sadness, we elevate it by converting it into fuel for positive change and more powerful joy.
The Underrated Festival:
This principle also applies in a broader, more meaningful and potent, context and perhaps helps explain a curious Tannaitic statement about an underrated event this week: Sunday saw the observance of the saddest day that has been stamped into the Jewish calendar, Tisha b’Av. Remarkably, thousands of years after the destruction of the temples, Jews still join in synagogues, fasting, mourning and reciting lamentations. Friday brings a different atmosphere as we celebrate Tu b’Av—the fifteenth day of the month.
This day is often described as a holiday of love and romance, where the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” and unmarried men would find their match. The Mishna boldly declares: “there were no festivals as great for the Jewish people as the days Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is obvious. But the greatness of Tu b’Av is puzzling—an oddly conspicuous event in the middle of a month plagued with the darkest memories of destruction.
Ruin and Repair.
The Mystical sources begin by explaining that Tub’Av symbolizes the luminous repair that follows this intense period of sorrow. And there is an axiom that true rising isn’t just recovery but destined to reach a superior level; “the greater the fall, the greater will be the subsequent ascent.
More concretely, the happiness of Tu b’Av is directly related—historically and psychologically— to the sadness of the Tisha b’Av. Tradition recounts that on the original Tisha B’av night it was decreed that the generation of the wilderness would not enter Israel. Years later, on the same day, the great city of Betar fell to the Romans and its dead were left unburied. Interestingly, both these misfortunes were rectified on the day of Tu b’Av: the people ceased to die in the wilderness and the dead of Betar were granted burial by the Roman government.
Hidden Message in Time:
What emerges is that the placement of these “holidays” in such close proximity communicates a message about the nature of sadness and joy. In more personal terms, someone who cannot sincerely cry cannot really celebrate. To the extent that a person can feel shame, can mourn, can embrace sorrow or regret—at the appropriate time—will he or she also experience true joy. This is not simply a question of contrast, where suffering brings greater appreciation when things improve. Rather, one experiences a brighter light, achieves greater success than would otherwise have been possible.