The Circle We Call Life

By Charles Morgan III


I like sad songs. It has been said that the music that is most influential in people’s lives is the music you listened to between the age of 16 to 25 years.


I spent the first half of an illustrious college career in Sewanee, Tennessee. If you like gloomy weather, which I do, Sewanee is perfect. Winters on the Cumberland Plateau, if I remember correctly, were either socked-in dense fog or misty, frozen rain. It was grey.


I started my freshman year at 17 years old with hair past my shoulders. I hadn’t shaved since the last day of high school. I looked like a skinny hipster! I was surrounded by classmates who were prep school kids wearing khakis and blue blazers and weejuns.


I remember taking a forestry class in dendrology. We had to memorize 100 different types of trees by their family, genus, species, variety and cultivar. All fall, we collected leaves to identify the trees, including about 20 varieties of oaks. By the time of the final exam, in December, there were no leaves left on the trees. That wasn’t sad—that was mind numbingly cruel..


I was a runner, and my first winter there I would come back from a long run down fire trails in the 10,000-acre forest with my beard coated in ice.


I was comfortable in my self-assigned role as an outcast.


I listened to albums by Joni Mitchell (Blue) and John Prine until they were worn out. There were sad songs on those records. And I recognized them.


I like sad films. There was an old theater in Sewanee that featured foreign films on Tuesday nights. Foreign films tend to be sad. I’ve watched them ever since and I’ve just about memorized Cinema Paradiso, an exquisitely sorrowful Italian movie directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.


I like sad books, and I’ve read lots of them. Recently, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr were plenty sad enough for me.


Literature, film and music that deal with grief are not necessarily depressing. There’s a big difference between sadness and depression. In my defense, recognizing that there are things to be sad about in this world doesn’t have much to do with being depressed. It’s more about being aware. And maybe a little empathetic.


I’m not a Buddhist, primarily because I don’t have the discipline. But one of the tenets of Buddhism is that we must embrace sorrow, pain and misery because it’s part of life. Happiness doesn’t exist in a vacuum—sadness is part of the circle of life also.


I have always pulled for underdogs. Scientists of human behavior have identified the traits of people like me. But who doesn’t like a great story of someone who triumphs over huge obstacles? Of course, there can be sadness in pulling for underdogs.


My father had an affinity for underdogs, too. I remember sitting in the old Fulton County Stadium on a cold Sunday afternoon at the end of an Atlanta Falcons game. The stadium was nearly empty, the Falcons were getting beat 45-0, and with the time running off the clock I asked my father what we were still doing there. He just said, “Don’t ever give up until it’s over.”


The Falcons never had much of a chance back then. The people that my father represented, as their attorney, never had much of a chance either. But he never gave up.


Don’t be alarmed about my relationship with sadness. I’m a relatively cheerful person. I’m about as happy as the next guy, I guess. Maybe my appreciation of the theme of sadness in literature, film and music serves as a juxtaposition to my own experiences in life.


John Prine nailed it almost 50 years ago:


That’s the way that the world goes ‘round

You’re up one day and the next you’re down


It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown

That’s the way that the world goes ‘round


The knowledge that there are things in life that call for grief and heartache is not burdensome. It’s just all part of this big roundish, circle we call life.


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