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Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Three - How Dark Emotions Become Toxic
Lenny Bruce said: “We all live in a happy ending culture, a what should be culture, instead of a what is culture. We’re all taught that fantasy. But if we were taught this is what is, I think we’d all be less screwed up.”
When it comes to primary human emotions like love and anger, fear and joy, grief and gratitude, despair and hope—what is, is. We all want to sit at the happiness banquet and feast on the bread of contentment, the wine of joy. We’d rather skip the emotional food that doesn’t go down so well. In life’s many meals, not everything is equally palatable; but it all needs to be digested. We can’t laugh heartily unless we know how to cry. We can’t be fearless unless we know the taste of fear. We can’t be happy if we’re afraid to feel sad. Our faith is not faith until it’s tested. To be at peace, we have to be at home with all of our emotions, to get comfortable with vulnerability.
Grief, fear, and despair are primary human emotions. Without them, we would be less than human, and less likely to survive. Grief arises because we are not alone, and what connects us to others and to the world also breaks our hearts. Grieving our losses allows us to heal and renew our spirits. Fear alerts us to protect our survival, extending beyond our instinct for self-preservation to our concern for others. Despair asks us to find meaning in the midst of apparent chaos or meaninglessness. Making meaning out of suffering is the basis of the human capacity to survive evil and transcend it.
The purposefulness of these dark emotions is evident when we can experience them mindfully, tolerate their intense energies, and let them be. Unfortunately, we don’t learn how to do this in a culture that fears and devalues them. Emotion-phobia toxifies dark emotions, leaving our hearts confused and numb, depressed and anxious, isolated and lonely. In emotion-phobic culture, we internalize the idea that befriending what hurts will hurt us, whereas suppressing and avoiding it will make us feel better. We only end up feeling worse. The cultural baggage we carry weighs us down, a major impediment to the art of emotional alchemy.
But we weren’t born with our bias against the dark emotions. We can change what we believe and how we react to grief, fear, and despair. We can transform the way we experience these emotions and begin to taste the freedom and power of letting our emotions be.
Fourteen first-graders sit before me, their eyes sparkling, their faces upturned in readiness. I am a volunteer parent, here to teach a class on understanding our emotions. This is not a subject generally offered in this private, progressive elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts—nor in most other schools, public or private, progressive or otherwise, anywhere on the planet. As a society, we haven’t valued the understanding of human emotion enough to teach it to our young.
I wonder what these seven-year-olds have to say on a subject so close to us and yet so little understood.
When I ask, “Who can tell me what emotions are?” a slew of hands go up.
“Emotions are what you feel inside, like when you’re happy or sad,” says Laurie, her round face warming to the subject.
Jane, a skinny girl with an electric energy, jumps in with “You feel them in your body. Sometimes they make you want to cry or yell or jump around.”
“Emotions tell you what you feel about things that are happening around you,” adds Camilla. Her large dark eyes look like they probably take in a good deal of what’s happening around her.
Next I do a naming exercise with the kids. Students are invited to come up to the blackboard and write down the name of any emotion that they know. Within minutes, the entire board is filled: happy, sad, angry, nervous, annoyed, frightened, hating, hopeless, loving, caring, bored, surprised, confused, depressed, disappointed, irritated, excited.
When I ask the students to think about what these emotions tell us, my question initiates a vibrant classroom discussion. Laurie tells the class that her mother’s irritability in the morning means she hasn’t had her first cup of coffee. Ritchie notes that when his father gets mad and loses his temper, it often means that Ritchie’s done something really bad because his father is usually pretty calm. Joanne sadly conveys her impression that her father is frequently depressed when he comes home from work, and this probably means he doesn’t like his job. “When my parents aren’t talking at breakfast, it means they’re mad at each other” offers Carol.
The kids talk about what makes them happy (a new bike), sad (when someone dies), and mad (when their parents blame them for something they didn’t do). Mark notices the way certain emotions are like others, only more so: “Angry is like annoyed, only worse.” Naomi has a comment about how some emotions camouflage others: “I cry when I’m mad,” she observes, “and when I’m sad, I act mad.”
When I ask the children if they have any feelings about the world as a whole, there is a pregnant pause. Lawrence with the sapphire blue eyes speaks first: “I’m sad that there’s so much violence.” Several children nod their heads, echoing Lawrence’s sadness.
“I get mad when animals are mistreated,” says Anna. “Like when people hunt and kill them for no reason.”
“The Gulf War made me really scared,” Danielle reports. “I don’t really understand why it had to happen.”
The last to speak is Will, a small boy with big eyes: “I think at the rate we’re polluting the earth, by the time I grow up there won’t be much left that’s clean and good for me.”
By comparison to the emotional intelligence of many adults, these kids are emotionally gifted. They have an intuitive grasp of what feelings are and what they’re for. They know that emotions are energies in the body that convey information, seek expression, and motivate action. Their emotional vocabulary is nuanced and wide-ranging. And they know that emotions, while “inner,” are responses to the larger world.
Not yet fully socialized in what psychologists call the conventions of emotional display, they tell it like it is. They are unabashedly direct and honest about their feelings. There is an excited spirit of information-sharing in their conversation, and not a hint of self-consciousness. Displays like this, in adults, might be called inappropriate. Yet these kids, untrained in adult notions of privacy, are respectful of their own emotions and those of their classmates.
All of this is quite different from what I would expect in a therapy group for grownups. Adults often take a long time to speak of feelings and, when they do, tend to monitor and edit what they say, to refer to their feelings only indirectly, or to use words that don’t communicate much detail (“It’s been a hard week”). It takes some time for adults to distinguish their sadness from depression, to know that their “upset” is about feeling scared or sad or hopeless. Adults feel shamed by “negative” emotions.
Not all kids are as emotionally literate as this largely middle-class, articulate group. But children live in their bodies more than most adults do and are therefore more attuned to emotional energy unmediated by preconceived judgments and beliefs. Their antennae are exquisitely sensitive to the emotional energy within and around them. Their emotional intelligence is part of their innate curiosity about themselves and the world. Until they learn that emotions are shameful, they have no shame about them. They are unafraid to show their true colors.
As they grow up, all this will change. Their ability to express their emotions openly without shame will be drastically reduced. Their emotional IQ will be lowered. Their sensitivity to the violence, war, and pollution in the world around them will be decreased. Their intuitive grasp of the connection between their emotions and what’s happening in the world will be supplanted by adult ways of ignoring, rationalizing, and denying what they can’t bear to feel. The more educated among them, trained in a post-Freudian worldview, will believe that the prime cause of emotional suffering lies in early childhood experience. Their understanding of the impact of the social environment on their emotional lives will shrink to a list of parental failings, particularly those of their mothers. Many of them will be at a great remove from the felt experience of emotion in their bodies, preferring to locate feelings in their heads. The natural pathway by which emotions seek expression will be consrained by adult prohibitions or obstructed by denial. The enthusiasm and impassioned inquiry in these young students will be replaced by a strong wariness and fear. Once so colorful and interesting, emotions will now appear dangerous, inferior to reason, best kept under tight control. The children’s hearts will have forgotten the magic of emotion.
In short, by the time these kids are grown, emotion-phobia will have set in. Disembodied, intellectualized, evaded, and shamed, their dark emotions will lose their power for alchemy.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan