Our emotions are complicated things. They are reactive, subjective, ever changing, only logical in their cause-and-effect’ functioning, and extremely difficult to quantify or accurately describe. Two people can have drastically different reactions to the same moment, one person can have dramatically different reactions to a repeated identical experience, we can feel them with incredible intensity and have no conscious idea of where they are coming from, we are capable of both fixating on them singularly and of experiencing multiple conflicting emotions simultaneously.
Our emotions motivate us at our most visceral level. With discipline and practice we can manage and channel them but even for the most masterful of us there are limits to our powers of control. Stoked to extreme enough levels of intensity emotions can overrun any logic or reasoning, even if sometimes their method of doing so is to so severely warp our perceptions and pervert our logic we end up blinded and puppeteered by an illusion of control.
The one constant thread is the primal motivation towards pleasure and away from pain. And before we get carried away winking and nudging about those who derive pleasure from pain remember they are still following the principle. They are seeking that which gives them pleasure and avoiding the suffering they would feel at its deprival, as in the following joke.
A sadist and a masochist are sitting on a park bench. The masochist says “Hurt me”. The sadist says “No”.
All living things seek to gain pleasure and avoid suffering. We humans, thanks to the blessing and curse of sentience, constantly strive to quantify, categorize, and qualify. We take these primal motivations and apply concepts such as right, wrong, good, bad, propriety, fairness, deservedness, all of which are subjective and perpetually evolving. We try to divide all our emotions into positives and negatives then set about formulating prescriptions for filling our lives with the former and banishing the latter. The simple truth is we can’t. And, far more importantly, we shouldn’t.
We set happiness up as some sort of fixed end state, like a bonus level in a video game. Achieve certain prescribed requirements and ‘voila’ you will be happy. And thanks to the domination of the consumer ideology the vast majority of those requirements currently tend to be purchase based. Buy this better car, live in this nicer house, wear these clothes, drink this beer, eat at this restaurant, acquire these external objects in their newest and most popular forms and you will be happy. Not only is that a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction as we chase the carrot at the end of a forever lengthening stick but the idea that we can ‘be happy’ is already dangerously false.
Happiness is a feeling. An emotional reaction to a current and real-time experience. It is not a verb or a permanent state.
We can live a life aimed at maximizing our joy and satisfaction but that does not guarantee or obligate our every reaction to be one of pleasure. The idea of happiness as something we can guarantee by formula is a dangerously misleading notion which comes with the toxic rider that if we do it ‘right’, if we are successful at ‘being happy’, then happiness is all we will feel. Not only does that set us up to pursue a destination which doesn’t exist it also sets us up for feelings of guilt, doubt, and self-criticism over our failure or inability to ‘do it right’. The ability to selectively publish, and egregiously rose-tint, a projected version of our lives online has only made the carrot cartoonishly more idealized and the stick infinitely longer.
The other perception distorting shoe this notion drops on us is that sadness is an evil, an enemy to be defeated and expelled. It tries to convince us that if we achieve happiness then sadness will be banished, that if we are ‘doing it right’ we will somehow be immune to sadness. Sadness is a part of life, and a necessary one. It is a natural reaction to disappointment and loss which, no matter how idealized a life we are living, will always occur. The only thing more toxic than the idea of sadness as a sign of failure is the idea of sadness as a betrayal of happiness.
Even the things which bring us the greatest happiness can bring us sadness as well. One does not exile or erase the other.
We can love our job and detest the office building it is in. We can truly adore our partners and be irritated by their taste in music. We can feel immense satisfaction in a task well done and be frustrated by how long it took to complete. Our favorite TV shows can have characters we wish they would cut. The positives and negatives might be contradictory but they are not mutually exclusive.
I love and am proud of the person I am and have worked hard to become. It does sadden me that some core parts of my nature make it extremely unlikely I will ever have the privilege of fully sharing myself with a partner and having them share themselves with me. I have many close and loving connections with friends and family who hold me in high regard for which I am immensely grateful and there are times when that regard can be a bit isolating, can feel a bit like a pedestal pushing me away. I love my body for how healthy it is and what it can do and I have a complicated and at times painful relationship with needing to keep it covered up. As a ballroom instructor the extrovert in me loves to teach and to entertain and interact with audiences while the introvert in me can find the constant face to face meeting of strangers draining.
Our emotions are not good or evil they are simply reactions to the various aspects and experiences of our lives. Some are more pleasant than others, some are easier to channel into productive use, but they are natural parts of us and if we are feeling them it is for a reason. We are certainly capable of focusing our attentions and energies. There is the old Native adage about the different ‘wolves’ we have within us and that the strongest ones are the ones we feed, which is definitely true.
We can choose to focus our thoughts and energies towards the positive but that doesn’t mean denying or forbidding our other feelings. Allowing ourselves to feel sadness or anger or pain does not have to mean being dominated by them and ignoring them can be just as dangerous and damaging as wallowing in them.
Our emotions are important natural parts of us. They help us connect and relate to the world around us and power us to take action. It is crucial we let ourselves feel them without guilt or judgement or apology. We need them, all of them.