By Marshall Bolin
In a world where you might be gunned down unexpectedly at school, church, in a restaurant or theater, it is essential to find ways of staying positive in the face of such overwhelming darkness. In fact, your mental health depends on it.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s because it’s bullshit.
It’s mainstream bullshit, though. In our culture we have a belief system that asserts that experiencing too much sadness and fear overtaxes our nervous systems, compromises the chemical balance in our brains, leads to disease and suicide. We are taught through commercials and popular mythology that the normal state of the healthy human being is to be happy all the time. Experiencing unhappy feelings such as sorrow and anxiety is seen as dangerous to your health, as a medical issue.
What if negative emotions are just as healthy as positive ones? What if mourning is the healthy response to tragedy, and anxiety is the healthy response to danger? Our negative emotions, rather than being illnesses requiring cures, are messages from ourselves telling us what is most meaningful to us. If a person dies who is important to me, I will feel sad. If a person dies who is really important to me, I’ll feel really sad. The pain is proportional to the meaning.
Sounds obvious. Why then do people suffering from depression say things like “I don’t know where these feelings of hopelessness and worry are coming from” , “it’s not normal to be this sad for this long” and “my life feels meaningless”? Some important reasons:
A. Culture tells us depression is not connected to how our lives are going but is a disease of the brain. Normal emotional responses are seen as abnormal.
B. Culture tells us uncomfortable feelings, since they are abnormal, need to be eliminated, and the way to do that is by replacing them with positive feelings.
C. Now that uncomfortable feelings are seen as the problem the focus is on eliminating them, rather than addressing their cause, which is whatever is not going well in our lives. Since the cause is not addressed, we keep having the negative feelings because our emotions are in healthy working order, continuing to tell us what is meaningful to us.
The problem created by the belief system I am describing is that when we receive the (always healthy) negative emotional messages from ourselves, we have trouble connecting the messages to whatever it is in our lives that the emotions are about. We leap directly to seeing the feelings themselves as the problem. Over time, this belief system becomes automatic and engages so quickly we don’t even notice it.
When we try to force ourselves to feel positively about something we feel negatively about, we feel worse, not better. Negativity about negativity breeds more negativity. (And negativity about that breeds still more negativity, so go easy on yourself about being hard on yourself—The best way to make peace with yourself is to do it imperfectly.) If we are unwilling to experience the darkness, i.e. the sadness and fear we feel about what is most important in our lives, we won’t experience positivity or meaning either, which happen as a result of tending to our lives, our relationships, our world.
So how do we cope with the mass shootings, the bombs, the prisons, the slavery, the human trafficking in a healthy way? We are willing to mourn. We cry about it. We despair. We feel overwhelmed, numb, pessimistic, powerless. We imagine our own children as the victims. As the perpetrators. But at the same time we don’t try to do these things—we let them happen. Or not happen. Our emotions don’t need to be managed.
And once we have felt our healthy emotions, now that we are aware of what is most meaningful to us, we act. We look for ways to improve conditions so they are more in line with our values. Then, when conditions improve, we feel positively.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. —Jesus