Emotional Balancing Act and Other Musings on What’s Positive and What’s Not
I am not certain if “making the world a better place” is something that we are taught or if it’s something that rises up from within us. I don’t remember learning, or even making a decision about trying to leave the world better than I found it—it was just sort-of, kind-of, always with me and one day I woke up to it. Maybe it was the prayer that I was afraid of that acted as the alarm clock– the one where you ask: “please show me Your will and Your way,” and then hope that Greater will is something you actually want to do.
How are we in any position at all to determine or judge what is positive and what is negative in our emotional life or the life of humanity? We bandy about these words as if we knew what they imply– and the truth is, we often don’t. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, said, “when a thing happens, you don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” I return to this quote again and again, because of its compassionate reach and reminder. We have all met someone who gets fired from a job and feels devastated. Then a year later they might say something like “getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” When a thing happens, we don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
A week ago I was telling a friend about this pocketful of grief that I had recently pulled out of an old pair of jeans. She listened empathically and then said to me in her well-intended way: “just don’t think about it.” On the one hand, not focusing on something painful is sage advice. On the other, if we don’t face the fears and pain in front of us, how will we deepen in understanding and compassion? While true that turning grief over in one’s hand, examining its edges is what some would call a real buzz kill, looking at how that particular grief arose when it did, often allows the space to forgive, give over, and move ahead without the pain of limiting and un-resolved baggage. So initially such a discovery appeared not to be such a “positive” thing, yet ultimately became a lesson that brought both resolve and liberation from the hard pebble of something past that had been stuck in your shoe.
Now, back to the news. When I read about our corrupt banking system or hunger in our own county, I am angry. That anger in turn informs a kind of activism to make a change for the better. So, is anger really a negative emotion, or like “fight or flight,” does it hold a deeper message if we are willing to acknowledge it and explore the opportunity underlying the whoosh of feeling?
For me, the emotional life is meant to be fluid and it’s meant to be full. It’s when we get stuck on any emotion that we falter and slide into unintended consequence. I cannot go through life only feeling its losses; yet by feeling life’s losses and being true to that process, compassion and tenderness grow. I cannot go through life in a constant state of joy, not if it means ignoring the ache of my heart that aligns itself with the needs of the poor, the sick, or the hungry. I am suspect of those who claim to have “reached” a state where joy is static by some force of will—the “I will be happy no matter what” mentality that excludes anyone grappling with the state of the human condition.
There are various self-help gurus in our world who pontificate that they have no investment in, or need for emotion. It seems a terrible affect, fraught with wasted opportunity if you eschew having your heart-broken open in order that you might better serve the world and leave it a better place. The emotional life of humankind is a complex and interesting journey, meant to inform the fullness of the life experience.
In the end I would be more sad if I hadn’t let life move me to great heights and great depths of all feeling; more sad if my heart had gone through life unscathed because I had never watched the news, never had a negative emotion and never opened myself in compassion and caring because of, and in spite of those things. It is the jagged edges of life that I find most interesting and delightful, the horrible beautiful journey of becoming a human being. For me, part of making the world a better place is living life fully. One more time, with feeling …as the acting coach used to say.