On my childhood bedroom wall, I had a poster of Desiderata given to me by my mother. The last line is Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. The whole poem was about how to achieve this elusive ‘happy’ state. Desiderata means desired things. And happiness is our most desired thing.
My mother, like many mothers, was constantly trying to ‘fix’ my sadness. Sadness, particularly crying, was displeasing to her. I learned that sadness had no place in my life. When my parents divorced, I was not allowed to be sad. When my dog was run over, I was not allowed to be sad. When I was bullied at school, I was not allowed to be sad.
The long term effect was that I suppressed my sadness because my mother didn’t like it, or–it seemed–me when I showed it. I discovered that suppressing my sadness was easier when I also suppressed my pain. Yet suppressing my pain eventually brought me to the edges of my sanity and despair. It pushed me to alcoholism and destructive (as opposed to healthy) promiscuity… sometimes I think my survival instincts just had a strange way of trying to push me to evolve. Consequently, I do not suppress my children’s emotions (or allow anyone else to as far as I am able).
The movie Inside Out, gets it right. In it, Sadness is constantly denied her place by Joy. The other emotions don’t understand the role of Sadness. Like my mother, they think she is a useless, destructive emotion. But by the end of the film, Sadness has assumed her place and the other’s recognise her worth. Reviewers have focused on this aspect, a groundbreaking departure from many children’s films, as it gives parents the language to be able to support their children’s feelings. But what purpose does sadness have? As a parent, I wanted to be able to explain it.
Firstly that we live in a multi-spectrum world where our feelings are only able to be appreciated relative to our other feelings. Our minds seek to identify patterns which seem to make us happy (or survive) and conversely courses of action which make us unhappy (or seem to be contrary to our survival).
It is the juxtaposition of dissimilar emotions which allow us to identify which bucket to put them in. Thus we can only truly appreciate love-based emotions in relation to fear-based emotions (the two basic emotions out of which all others are a variation).
The gift of being able to feel your emotions is therefore the gift of survival. Emotions are signals from our bodies which help us devise strategies which we believe will help us survive. But in order to survive–and thrive–we need to be able to feel all of them. That’s what they are there for.
We also need the rational brain in order to interpret those signals. But our rational minds are capable of forming so many opinions, beliefs and judgements that we also need to train ourselves, and our children to be able to embrace their feelings without attributing negative moral judgements to them. Only then can they choose wisely.
On a social level, the ability to feel our own emotions allow us also the empathy to connect deeply with one another. That we all understand what pain, sadness and joy is, means that we can connect beyond language and nationality. That we allow ourselves to feel, mean we are less likely to judge others for feeling the same feelings. My mother was also not allowed to feel sad as a child. She grew up under the auspices of stuff upper lip and it meant that she ‘brought herself up by her bootstraps’ as she often told me. She became suspicious of emotion, resented anyone else for allowing themselves to feel it and she judged them for it.
Allowing full expression of your emotions is necessary to gain the ability to feel compassion; for yourself and others. When I look out at the world, I find much to be sad about. The trauma, the abuse, the tragedy. The endless futility of human cruelty. After years of training myself to feel, I have learned not only to talk about it, but to feel it in the depths of my body. Sadness hurts. Sometimes as if those events were happening to us.
Without compassion, I find it difficult to believe we can really experience joy. As long as we can love and feel sadness at the same time, I hold my hope for humanity. So in striving to be happy, I believe we should also strive to be sad.
As a child I waited for happiness to follow, by denying my sadness. I imagined I would be happy at around 35. By the time I was 35, I would have a well paid job in business, a stable marriage with a faceless man, a house in the UK and a couple of kids. Yet at 35 I had none of those things. I lost my stressful finance job, got divorced, was still renting and had no kids yet. I experienced a breakdown until I finally listened to my feelings. When Pandora’s box is full to bursting, it opens.
Today I’m 41. I have a job I love as an author, two intimate relationships and many more friendships, a house in Sweden and a couple of kids. Those 6 years changed everything. They were sadder and more painful than I ever believed possible yet far more joyful too. So for my kids, instead of trying to live up to an elusive state of desired happiness in the chaos of this world, I’ve chosen this poem. It seems to me that it will help them more.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
(From ‘Kindness’ by Naomi Shihab Nye)