UNFOLDING OF COMPLEXITY The search for self, energy to change, and compassionate acceptance of the present
Found within the thick protective skull is a powerful thinking machine. Our brains—a fabulous tool—analyses and directs life. Unfortunately, this thinking machine also creates unneeded, unwelcomed pain. With the slightest inconvenience or unexpected encounter, we cascade down a thought trail of misery. Sparked by an ordinary occurrence, unhinged thoughts expand, predict and create meanings—often expansions unsubstantiated by relevant facts.
Our analysis goes off course when we demand answers. A simple inquiry about a feeling—why am I feeling blue—may unearth numerous issues, exposing unfavorable circumstances; the circumstances we believe should be better. Perhaps, a similar investigation conducted when we are happy—instead of sad—would discover the same unfavorable circumstances, indicating that it’s not the circumstances but some other force behind the sadness. We rarely seek unfavorable conditions when we are happy; why would we? But when we find the unfavorable during sadness motivated meaning searches, we assume the discoveries also to be the causes. We busy ourselves resolving problems that don’t necessarily impact happiness. Working for change but failing discourages motivation; we feel helpless to the flood of sadness, further discouraging our system.
The cycle of sadness channels cheerless energy strengthening the weighty winds into a full-blown storm of depression.
I’m not foolish enough to believe that a short article on sadness will rid the world of the debilitating disease. My hope is to illuminate a few of misguided beliefs that lead some off course. The goal is not to escape negative feelings; they have a purpose. We need the biological warning system to avoid painful and dangerous engagements. Emotions imprint experience for recall. Losses imprinted with sadness and grief, encourage healthy future behaviors to avoid similar losses. The wisdom of the passed encourages nurturing important relationships, maintaining healthier lifestyles, and staying relevant in the job market. When no emotional marker accompanies an experience, we forget—were not motivated to change. Seeking a life of non-stop pleasure, ignoring discomforting consequences, undermines this biological guidance system.
Joy is important. Life derives meaning from joy. We are driven to activities that produce joy. But as with all feelings, joy has a natural ebb and flow, dynamically changing, alerting or system to change, and storing connections between behaviors and feelings. Emotion suggests movement—change. Joy fades, sadness arrives. The changes demand attention. Emotions motivate future choices, whether we should pull back or hopefully approach. Constant joy would stupefy this life saving guidance. Discomfort routinely floods sensations during interaction. Biological and experiential programming directs attention to behaviors and circumstances.—wrongs needing correction, dangers to be avoided and opportunities to be pursued. The complex web of possible associations complicates the system. Most choices are not simply right or wrong; but a mixture of benefits and drawbacks. Some pleasures sacrifice tomorrow on the alter of today—which may be perfectly appropriate, but the sacrifices and gains need to be weighed.
The complexity of choice is most salient in human relationships. Relationships require constant balancing of give and take, asserting the self at times, and sacrificing the self at times. Relationships activate emotions—joy and sorrow, peace and anxiety. Our brains solve problems; we anticipate, avoid and plan. In relationships, especially intimate relationships, we are vulnerable to the other person. We can’t perfectly predict. We can structure our own life to avoid surprises but when we welcome others into our circle, those predictions become imprecise, subject to other’s actions with competing and sometimes conflicting goals.
When confronted with the conflicting interests, fear of rejection, or loss of security, the bells and whistles of discomfort sound, “something is wrong, pay attention!” We focus attention on our partner, blaming them for the discomfort, and demanding that they should change to soothe the disruption. Subtle manipulations invade relationships; but rarely succeed to relieve the anxiety. A partner’s failure to change starts a chain of emotional responses—anger, frustration, sadness, and resentment. We frantically go into cognitive overdrive trying to solve the unsolvable. Vulnerability is uncomfortable and intimate relationships demand it. Overtime, trust in self, and trust in a partner mitigates the fear; but complexity remains.
The rejection of negative emotion popular with pop psychology is a disservice. Condemning a person suffering from dysthymia for choosing sadness is ethically wrong. The sufferer must contend, in addition to the inner-turmoil, guilt for suffering. Then the guilt is also condemned as a choice, “Don’t feel guilty. Guilt isn’t good.” I’m baffled. In an era where we recoil at demanding responsibility for horrendous crimes—the Twinkies, affluenza, or childhood neglect made me do it—we do, however, demand responsibility for feelings.
We are not powerless. Emotions slowly can be more appropriately molded when misguided. We invite healing to soothe past hurts. Healing is complex. Hurts are complex. Deep wounds impacting emotions are not simply washed away with magical thinking. Negativity isn’t the cause of pain, past experience is. Positive thinking isn’t bunk. It can play a significant role in growth; but we must realize that thinking alone isn’t the complete answer. Expressing gratitude, acknowledging unnecessary negative thoughts, and focusing on joys are tools worthy of developing.
We should work to constructively address and soothe pains without denying them. Some quickly heal and become a part of our past—adding to wisdom and compassion. Other wounds—especially childhood hurts—aren’t so easily cured. Some hurts remain throughout our lives. We may never completely escape the emotional impact of the past but we can compassionately accept that past. With growth, we can become adept at identifying remnants of the past hurts. We skillfully navigate the emotions to mitigate their interference with current important relationships—understanding partners help.
Increasing skills of self-nurturance is essential to address, process, and resolve hurts. Mindful reflection constructively works for improvements. The seemingly random events begin to make sense. Our lives no longer feel as chaotic and vulnerable. Our futures become more connected to our present. Future hopes are not ill defined dreams but an interwoven part of a defined plan. We recognize our intimate part of the complex and unfolding universe. With this growing knowledge, we exercise caution. We can’t avoid all the unknowns but manage to avoid obvious dangers, guaranteed to inflict new wounds. The small steps lead towards healthier living, and healthier living invites more growth. The positive cycle of change is born. These small shifts shape futures in new and wondrous ways.