OnWords: Sad

Aug 8, 2017

A well-known Twitter user has gotten a reputation for ending his diatribes with the word “sad.”

This use of “sad” is meant to label something “pathetic” and not to indicate the tweeter’s actual mood.

And this use of “sad” is patronizing. It is meant to pull rank by the person casting it out.

But its use brings up a strange paradox in how we use the word “sad” that parallels some contradictory notions we have about feelings.

On the one hand, we view sadness as an understandable reaction to life circumstances such as grief, loss, and overall hard times. We don’t fault people for their feelings of sadness when we understand their circumstances.

But as a synonym for “pathetic,” the word “sad” demonstrates that we also pity those who are under the pall of despair. It brings up old-fashioned notions of depression as sin or character defect. It implies that sadness undermines the self-confidence and action-orientation that we Americans so deeply revere.

Coming from a politician and aimed at other politicians, “sad” indicates that the person on the receiving end is weak, unable to deal with or ignore the emotional universe that feeling beings inhabit.

“Sad,” when so used, is then both patronizing and dangerously dismissive, cutting off empathy as a matter of course.

When it comes down to it, we want people to at least be able to be sad. We want our leaders to, as Bill Clinton put it, feel our pain—to dwell in the same hard world we live in.    

Informed by sadness, their choices become fully human, as they need to be.