Our emotions are always with us, sometimes rising seemingly out of nowhere like a giant sea-serpent, at other times existing like a still ocean, always there but not causing any trouble. Unfortunately emotions often get a bad reputation, particularly when placed next to rationality, as if the two are diametrically opposed with emotions therefore being irrational. Directly leading from that is the notion that emotions can somehow be labeled as good or bad in, perhaps not always ethical ways, but certainly being qualified as positive or negative. “Don’t be negative” has become the mantra of the newest iteration of mind-over-matter, particularly in relation to cancer and other illnesses. Emotions have become objects to label, control and to be placed into neat boxes for further analysis or shuffled away to make life better.
This tendency to view emotions in positive or negative judgments can be detrimental to how we live our lives. Who determines which emotions are good or bad? Is that person speaking only for themselves or for everyone and if the latter, why? Can an emotion be good in one situation but bad in another? Let’s take anger. The person declaring anger as bad is often in a position of power, where labeling it as such is more about diminishing the legitimacy of anger’s cause. How anger is labeled goes a long way towards keeping the hierarchy of power in place. If you’re “just being emotional” or “acting out” or “being aggressive,” then the focus is shifted from considering what the anger may be about and onto why you need to know your place.
Questioning causes here brings up why labeling emotions in themselves as good or bad is unhelpful. Emotions don’t simply appear, no matter how that may feel at times. Calling emotions spontaneous is simply noting the speed of the reaction, not that they happened without connection to experience. Picture that quiet ocean again, this time seeing how the water reflects the colors of the rainbow in the light. Some colors may be seen more often, others may rise up with passing waves and then dip down again. This is your emotional life. Always there, always moving, an immediate reflection of the world in which you live.
Now place a moving object, a small boat or a large ship, cutting through the water and making it roil and splash around. That object is your current experience, a combination of perception (rational appraisal) and the world itself. Some things in experience are outside of perceptual control, that being the world itself as our biology, social structure and cultural standards. Our rational appraisal gets all the praise because it’s our conscious self, which requires words to describe it, as opposed to the supposedly more simplistic quality of mere feelings.
Where’s the cause and effect? The easy connections are difficult to follow in this picture. In fact, they’re practically impossible. We can’t stop living in the ocean of our emotions, constantly and quietly assessing our situations from below conscious awareness. Neither can we stop the “I” of our conscious lives requiring verbal description and therefore the creation of narratives to explain our experiences. What is cause and what is effect therefore get lost because either can be substituted for the other depending on the place in experience a person is looking from.
The result in seeing our emotions this way is a removal of judgment. They are no longer something to be feared or mocked, replaced or removed. They simply are a part of us, to varying degrees of strength but never wholly gone. Getting rid of judgment means being able to focus on our stories, the structure that scythed through our still waters and provides the path for meaning and values to manifest. Acceptance is letting the waves come and moving forward with how we live.
© David Teachout