What We Learned About Your Sadness

by Jason Porter

Dear contestants and the interested observers,

This is what we were thinking. We had a short story about sadness — one I wrote, called “We Were Down.” A darkly humorous story, painful and nervous too, but hopefully funny enough to cut through its own misery. In addition it was the holidays. For many, a deeply emotional time that often falls short, because of the expectations, and the terrible music, and the movies we know are stupid, but which nevertheless drone on in cloying notes of joy and togetherness. Which are fine things, should you be lucky enough to have them, but take on a sting if you don’t. From the story we stripped its central structural conceit, an absurd survey on sadness, and used it with a minimum of context for the purposes of a whimsical holiday contest. Bring us your foul Christmas circumstances and we will decorate the most miserable of your lot with therapy and gin.

At the time it seemed funny, in a darkly comic sort of way. It all calls to mind an epigraph I’d hoped to add to my novel from a song by the Bee Gees called “I Started A Joke,” though I didn’t hear back from the estate of Robin Gibb in time to include it. It’s one of many brilliant songs from earlier in their career where they were superbly melancholic without ever ceding their natural gift for melody. The song begins, “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.” Which is, to some degree, what we have done here.

The punch line to this joke was a flooded inbox, with answers ranging in tone from petty to tragic, thus forcing me, the judge, on a blinding journey through a spreadsheet filled with life’s varied disappointments. A majority of the contestants appeared to be incredibly alone, except in the sense that they were part of a tightly packed crowd, all common inhabitants of the same broad category of grim experience. What makes people so sad? In our survey results the big winners were poverty, physical misfortune, death, loss, unrequited love, sexual abuse, chemical addiction, and a history of upsets so consistent the only logical outlook is hopelessness. I wish this list were due to a writerly gift for exaggeration. It isn’t.

If I can pivot to a more positive trajectory, there were also many entries that were not without hope and bravery. People want to believe in God. People still hold out for love. People are rightfully suspicious of the idea of more sports. And people really want to vent a little, or often much more than a little. Some even admitted as much, saying they weren’t in it for the prizes. Their answers were passionate, angry, rough, and of course very sad. But even more they were raw and unfiltered. A quirky and self-parodying questionnaire filled with leading questions, somehow became a truth serum, a confessional made of ones and zeros. On our end, it was an unanticipated deluge of human experience. A humbling downpour. A wealth of forlorn perspective.

Given that the survey itself was never intended as a scientific tool, any extrapolating is speculative. Still, it’s clear people, or these several hundred people, were keen to talk. Or to write. Personally (and I realize nobody really asked), I have found both talking and writing to be invaluable in my sad and inconsequential battle against depression. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but mining only a fraction of the amount of pain of our average contestant, I wrote an odd little novel, thrusting all of my anxieties on some poor guy I decided to call Ray, the author of this very same survey. Things didn’t necessarily go well for him and I almost retired from writing just about every day I sat down to write it. But eventually I pulled this thing out of me, and I felt slightly improved. And I do believe that I understand my feelings a little better. Maybe only four percent better, but better. Did I in the end feel heard? Not really. But it did help to talk.

Happy new year.

– Jason Porter

Editor’s Note: The prize for the saddest entry has been awarded. The following are, with the winner’s permission, excerpts from her survey.

Are you single?
Yes, technically. I’m involved with a very tall man who prefers that we both date other people, but he also tells me I’m funny and kisses my neck sometimes.

Are you having an affair?
I recently met a man on Craigslist for anonymous sex. I didn’t tell the very tall man with whom I’m involved, but this is technically allowed in the terms of our relationship, which I guess isn’t really a relationship at all.

Are you similar to the you you thought you would become when as a child you imagined your future self?
Yes and no. No, of course. But also I think I knew from a very young age that I had this strange sort of sadness about me and if you had told me as a child that I would live alone with my cat through grad school and spend my nights counting the veins in my wrists then I think that would have made sense to me.

Why are you so sad?
Sad is maybe not the right word. This is maybe not the right survey for me. A better survey for me might be: Why are you so dull and gray and lifeless? Why do you spend so much time sitting still? Why do you sit alone on the bus and pretend not to see the people you know who are sitting a few seats ahead? Why do you wrap a scarf so tightly around your neck at the bus stop? Why are you always alone at coffee shops on Friday nights? Why were you crying in the library last week? Why are you applying for food stamps? Why haven’t you paid your grad school fees yet? Why do you spend so much time examining the peeling bits of skin around your fingernails? Why did you wait two weeks to tell anyone that you had two broken ribs? Why didn’t you call anyone to help when you locked yourself out of your apartment? (Why didn’t you make a spare key?) Why doesn’t your mother talk to you anymore? Why did you get rid of all the chairs in your apartment? Why haven’t you taken out the trash? Why do you fall asleep on the floor? Why do you rock back and forth in public sometimes, looking pale? Why do you always seem to be catching your breath? Why did you pretend not to recognize your therapist when you saw him ordering a roast beef sandwich downtown? Why haven’t you talked to him since? Why haven’t you eaten anything today? Why aren’t you eating?

What does it feel like to get out of bed in the morning?
Waking up is like lifting a great weight off my chest — often literally, because my cat weighs eighteen pounds and likes to sleep on top of me with his nose tucked under my chin. He’s patient while he waits for me to get up, and he follows me to the bathroom and waits at my ankles for me to be done, and then he follows me to the kitchen and licks my toes while I get his breakfast. And then I usually crawl back under the covers, and sometimes he joins me after he eats, and we stay curled up like that — girl and cat, both with no reason to get out of bed — for as long as we can, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. The mattress was cheap and used and I spend enough time on it that it has formed a valley in its very center, an imprint of my body that now I roll right back into every night, every afternoon.

When was the last time you felt happy?
Like I don’t care for “sad” (see above), I also don’t care for “happy” as it’s opposite. Perhaps the better question is: When was the last time you felt anything at all? In which case the answer would be that I felt anger just a few days ago, annoyance earlier today, resentment last week. I think I felt something like genuine sadness last time the very tall man told me he hooked up with someone else, but really, feeling sharp hurt felt almost good, almost like something real. And maybe I felt almost happy when he told me that it was meaningless, that he regretted it, that maybe he and I should go eat some tacos. He bought tacos for us and we ate them in a little booth with a disco ball hanging above it and we shared a drink. I caught him looking at me while I was laughing at something. He hugged me after, in the rain, and we looked at each other for a long time.

Was it a true pure happy or a relative happy?
I couldn’t think of an example of pure happiness if I tried. What’s happiness? Eating tacos under florescent light with someone who helped you break through your own bedroom window when you locked yourself out? Hugging someone who knows how to squeeze just enough not to hurt your broken ribs?

Is today worse than yesterday?
Christmas. My family doesn’t really celebrate Christmas but we try to act like we do, which is worse than just admitting that none of us care and all of us staying home alone. Last night we all ate lunch meat and meatballs from Ikea for dinner. My grandparents gave me cat food for Christmas. My brother left without saying goodbye to anyone and I realized later that we hadn’t spoken one word to each other all night. This morning I woke up nauseous and bent over the toilet. The meatballs. Both of these days have been better than last Friday, when I had an anxiety attack on the bus home and sat on the sidewalk for a long time, realizing how very few people I really have to call in these little dark moments. And I walked home in the dark, scarf wrapped around my mouth like a bandage, and I took enough benzodiazepines to rock myself slowly to sleep on the kitchen floor, my cat pawing at my face like he was concerned.

Have you ever fallen in love?
I thought so. And then I thought about it for awhile, reconsidering. Now I don’t think about it at all, really. This question took me aback. Love? People think about love?

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