Anno III - Numero 39
La storia insegna, ma non ha scolari.
Antonio Gramsci

giovedì 18 gennaio 2018

What Our Emotions Mean

Or, What Happiness, Anger, and Sadness Are (Really) Trying to Tell You

di Umair Haque

If there’s one change I could make to the world, I don’t think it would be a grand economic, political, or social revolution. It would be something simpler and more fundamental. I would teach people from a very young age what their emotions mean. It is the very first thing I would really teach people at all.

It strikes me that we spend most of our lives, from the day we are born, in a kind of haze: consumed with, and overwhelmed by, these mysterious things called emotions — but rarely do we understand what they are trying to say. And perhaps if we did, the world would be a little less tribal, fractured, angry, because we would be less reactive, nervous, conflicted. The first and last thing we are ignorant of is ourselves.

Perhaps that is hoping for too much. Maybe it’s enough just to say that we should know ourselves as more than consumers, rational beings, little calculators of desire. So first I will explain a little what emotions mean — and then I will encourage you to ignore everything I have said.

Happiness, when you think about it, is the most mysterious thing of all. It is not just pleasure, satisfaction, gratification, or delight. So what is it? I read a paper today finding that generosity is linked with happiness — and then it tried to trace the neural mechanisms thereof. Ah, there we go again — eliding what our emotions mean. So: happiness just means that you are growing. A moment of happiness is an instant in which you are maturing and developing.That is why generosity is linked with happiness — you are giving, but you are also receiving the message that by giving, you are growing.

But what is it in you that is growing? Well, it is just you — your truer self, your self-expression, your natural faculties — the truth is we do not have a good word for it, because we have not thought well about it. We are born with a certain nature. A tiny baby possesses the capacities for empathy, for love, for closeness, for intimacy, for truth. And as adults, somehow, these are precisely the things we lose. And so growing means that those capacities are able to be expressed in more sophisticated and powerful ways — not suffocated and denied. That is your possibility — and when it is realized, even in small ways, there is happiness.

Babies are of course also hungry, needy things. They get angry and cry. Anger is the frustration of possibility. It means that there is an opportunity for growth that has been stifled or thwarted. The baby wails when the bottle is not given on time. And so do you, when you are rejected, ignored, denied.

Anger, then, is a message of deprivation. In just this way, anger is also a cry — for all that is missing in the expression of possibility: intimacy, closeness, respect, truth. It means that you have come close to having it, and then, somehow, it was taken away. It is only natural to cry out for it. But if you understand all this, then anger, too serves a worthy purpose: it reminds us both that there is always another chance for possibility to be realized, and that we are meant to realize ourselves. The meaning of anger is that we are being deprived of fullness, just like a little child — and once we understand it, we can surrender the hot, bitter fury of going empty a little, and choose, instead, to focus on finding, creating, giving, sharing fullness.

Sadness is the loss of possibility. You grieve when a relationship ends, when a loved one dies, and so on. What has really happened? We say that “a part of us has died”. We are precisely right. It is a part of our possibility that has died. If possibility contains intimacy, closeness, respect, love, truth, then the curious fact is that our possibility is not really our own — it is more like a conjoint interdependence. And that is the message of sadness — its beauty, its power, its strength: that we are never really alone, because it is precisely through our loneliness that we learn possibility can never only be realized by ourselves at all.

So the meaning of sadness is to remind us of our fragility — not just our own, but all life’s — and if we really hear that message, then a little miracle happens: fragility becomes the source of all our strength. We grow gentle, merciful, empathetic, graceful, light, free. Then we are maturing into fullness at last.

So. Happiness means realizing possibility, which teaches us about our nature, and challenges us to respect, support, and nurture it, not just in ourselves, but in all. Anger means the deprivation of possibility, which teaches us emptiness, and orients us towards fullness. And sadness means losing possibility, which teaches us fragility, and gives us strength. And each of these messages teach us great secrets about life. But we must learn how to listen.

Now. I told you that I would end with asking you to ignore me. Here is why. It it not just because I cannot do justice to emotions in a few words, only scratch their rippling surface. It is not even because I have used a kind of framework of possibility to explain emotions, and there are many theories we could choose. It is because there is a deeper message inside all these messages your emotions are telling you still.

What is an emotion, when you think about it? I have implied, in all the above, that emotions are messages. Freud might have said from your superego to your ego, Jung from your shadow to your animus. But I don’t think emotions are really internal messages — in the way that a word or a letter or a computer program is. Emotion — the movement of the soul. Not a single human being since the dawn of time has been able to define what they really are, and so we are stuck with this strange word, that we still cannot pin down.

What are they, then? They are something more like the self inside and beyond all selves. If I say “sadness”, the strangest thing of all is that you know precisely what I mean. I don’t need to define it at all. Even a little puppy can sense it. In this way, that our emotions are the common fundamental elements, the hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon of our existence, life is something universal. Isn’t that strange and fascinating? A little beautiful?

Emotions, then, are messages. But not just from your unconscious to your conscious, or your child self to your adult self. They are messages from life to you, about what life really is. Something more impossible than you suppose. You are in every life, and every life is in you. And in that way, even your wounds are as beautiful as the burning stars.
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