My job changed from temporary to permanent, and I was congratulated by my boss and everyone else in the office. That evening, while I was at a birthday party, I received a telephone call saying a close friend had died of cancer.
How can one keep an emotional balance in the middle of such extremes?
I did not have many such experiences when I was your age or younger. But as I have grown older, I find more and more experiences like this.
There was a situation almost exactly like yours when, after 17 years of struggle, with things gradually becoming better, I had just been promoted in a relatively new job. That evening, when I was at a very kind new neighbour’s birthday party, I received a telephone call that someone very dear to me (a close relative) had been killed.
I fought hard to keep a straight face, went to my hosts at the party, and excused myself on the grounds that I was not feeling very well (which was, of course, true by then), though I did not share the real reason for my not feeling well, because that would have put a damper on the party.
Only when I got home did I cry and cry and cry.
I find that negative emotions easily overwhelm positive emotions. Even between the weight of one great thing that is good, and the far lighter weight of another thing that is bad, I find that the smaller thing that is bad too easily comes to occupy a far greater share of my consciousness.
On the other hand, I know there are people who don’t let negative emotions touch them at all.
Actually, even for people who are not so unfeeling (that is, “normal” people), our culture has developed a whole host of “meditational” and other techniques to prevent us from feeling anything. And these techniques are given a high place in our country. But the result is hardly human. Because not feeling anything is like a living death.
Keeping your heart soft
How do I know that it is more human to allow oneself to fully feel emotions than it is to use meditational or other techniques to “gain a distance” from feeling emotions?
Let me share with you one rational reason, and one supernatural reason.
The supernatural reason is that we must have some sort of guideline or standard by which to choose between competing and opposing ways of dealing with sorrow or pain – or anything else. If one guru tells us that the best way of dealing with it is to stop feeling, and another guru tells us that the best way of dealing with it is to feel it fully, they cannot both be right. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. But He did not merely weep, He also then acted to set things right.
That takes us straight to the rational reason: if we stop feeling sorrow or happiness, it is much more difficult for us to sympathize with others who are experiencing sorrow or happiness. And if we do not sympathize, we will not be willing to do anything to either genuinely participate in the happiness of others, or to change the sorrow of others.
The result of allowing ourselves to weep is that our hearts are kept soft. If we do not have soft hearts, and we do not act to set things right around us, then all that is wrong around us continues to be wrong. But if our hearts are soft, then we will want to act, and we will act, to set things right around us, to whatever extent we can.
In other words, it is precisely the meditational and other techniques which we have developed that are the reason for our being willing to tolerate the extent of injustice and unnecessary suffering that we have in our country. Meditation is good for personal peace and prosperity, but it is bad for the chances of lessening injustice and suffering. Is that one reason why certain political parties want to encourage nationwide meditation?
To come back to my own case that day, I did not refuse to feel happy that I had been promoted: of course I rejoiced! I did not refuse to feel happy that my new neighbour had completed another year of his life: to do so would have been mean-spirited and churlish. Conversely, when I heard the bad news, I could not stop crying.
Why did I do that? Because I knew that “to be human is to feel emotions”. Of course it requires much greater strength to be able to fully experience joy and to fully experience sorrow, than it does to harden your heart against them. In our country, to allow ourselves to take on the joys and sufferings of our fellow citizens is overwhelming. That is why we need God’s presence and strength, to be able to grow strong enough to be able to bear them.
So here is my answer to your question: The way to handle the storm is to enter fully into the happinesses of life as well as into the tragedies of life, and to become a better person by behaving on the basis of the greater joy and sympathy you develop as a result.
Dear Shanti, do fight against the temptation of having a cold heart. Keep your heart soft.
Published in the March 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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