In a previous post, I gave a sneak peak into some of the things I would talk about, including one on how “negative emotions are good.” I’ve had requests from several people for more on that, so I thought now, with the approach of Samhain, would be a good time to approach this topic.
We live in a culture where certain emotions are viewed anywhere from simply “negative” to downright “wrong” or “sinful.” No matter where you go, the general consensus is that these emotions need to be resisted, “released” (one of my favorites of the coercive terms because it sounds so innocent. Right up there with “forgive” or “just get over it”), or not even felt if you’re a “good person.” The taboo on emotions is especially strong surrounding sadness for men and anger for women, but it’s pretty safe to say that, in general, “negative emotions” just aren’t considered good or healthy to experience.
But what if we have it all wrong?
A little fairy once told me, “Changing your perspective gives you the power to change your world.” And as many pagans and witches know, the highest magic comes not with transforming the world around you but with transforming your thoughts.
So let’s try some transformative magic.
It’s easy to recognize how a world of continuous darkness would be bad. Life would die because life cannot function without light. It’s easy to see how a world of continuous rainfall would be bad. I’ve seen the floods and destruction that come with a few too many days of rain. But I rarely question the destruction that would surely follow a world that was always sunny. There are times where there is too much sun; it’s called a drought. But I never think about droughts when thinking about excesses of something!
Growing up, I remember hearing preachers disdain the philosophy that “life’s purpose is happiness.” In their minds, such a wasted life was a life spent pursuing happiness. And as much as I would disagree with the reasons for that statement, I find that I actually agree with the statement itself.
Pursuing happiness is a pursuit doomed to failure.
Does that mean I don’t have the right to be happy? Should I be miserable, as those preachers seemed to want?
No, I think I have every right, even a destiny, to be happy! But I am coming to see life’s purpose as wholeness, not happiness. And there’s a big difference. While wholeness certainly involves happiness, it also involves the ability to feel sadness. While wholeness involves peace, it also involves the ability to feel anger or fear.
They’ve been labeled “negative emotions.” They’re portrayed as something I shouldn’t have, something to avoid, something I must drive out when I feel them. But imagine if you could not feel sadness or anger or fear? I’ve thought of these emotions as out of place, but that’s only because I didn’t recognize their purpose. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel anger when I saw a child abused. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel fear when I got too close to danger. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel sadness when I lost a loved one, or guilt when I hurt someone.
Without them, I would die just as surely as I would die without hope or joy or courage.
A tree requires both sunlight and darkness. Its branches reach for the sky while its roots tunnel into the ground. If the roots are not cared for or fed, if they’re cut off, the top of the tree will quickly die as well. In the same way, I have a shadow side, a side that is buried away from view, that isn’t fun to look at, that doesn’t feel good, that has the potential to make others and myself uncomfortable. But if I don’t embrace that side of myself and accept it as part of myself, I doom it to rot and fester until it destroys that bright side of me too.
Wholeness isn’t about cutting myself off from the shadow side of life. It’s about recognizing the purpose for that shadow side—the purpose for those emotions and experiences—and melding it together with the light side into a single whole. I have so much duality in me. I have light and darkness, reason and intuition, “femininity” and “masculinity”. Heck, my life card is the Sun and my Spirit card is Death. You can’t get much more dual than that. And the amazing thing is, each side, each facet, has a freaking purpose! They all work together to create me! And just as I’ve given up so many other things with fundamentalism, I’ve also given up the idea that there is anything inherently in me that is wrong.
Which means my emotions, by themselves, can’t be wrong.
None of them.
So what is it that makes these shadow emotions seem “bad”? Outside of a general inability to tolerate discomfort and do messy soul work, I think we’ve mistaken the emotions themselves for specific scripts surrounding them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias. When we think of anger, we think of when someone became violent in their anger. We don’t remember the times that anger was constructive or creative or protective. Once you get to the point where you associate the emotion itself with the negative behavior, then you get so busy fighting the emotion that there’s no chance to fight the script that you’ve adopted about it.
As part of my spiritual practice, I’m learning to become comfortable with my dark side. I’m throwing away the scripts I’ve been taught and searching for a new, transformative perspective about the shadow emotions. I’ve come to appreciate this time of year, when the Goddess traditionally takes a journey down into the underworld for a few months until spring, because it reminds me that I also need underworld journeys, as tough as they are. It’s not easy to sit with an emotion. It’s much easier to go back to my scripts. But sitting in discomfort is essential to my emotional transformation as much as it is to my spiritual transformation. The ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort is, I think, one of the key aspects to true freedom.
And as I take this journey, I smile to myself because I recognize what I never could have from within Christiantiy—that Jesus, too, got angry, felt grief and despair, and considered bailing out from fear.