One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious. This procedure, however, is disagreeable, and therefore not very popular. | Carl Gustav Jung
At the time of writing this piece, nearly one million species on the planet are under threat of extinction due to anthropocentric activities. In India, as the nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 grew in numbers, the national capital witnessed a brutal carnage that left fifty-three people dead, and more than 200 injured. An astounding number that ran into thousands were detained in different parts of the country. Even as the dead were laid to rest, the world spiralled into what would be known as the COVID-19 pandemic affecting more than 150 countries. Locally and globally, humanity has been touched by emotions ranging from anxiety, confusion, dis-ease, and fear to apathy, hatred, intolerance, and violence. In a time, when we deal not only with personal losses but events of catastrophic scale, what wisdom do we rely on?
Western philosophy introduced us to the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy – rational thinking and order personified by Apollo and irrationality and emotions embodied by Dionysius in Greek mythology. A similar dialectic exists between masculine logic and feminine emotion. This dichotomy has been extrapolated further to separate our emotions as positive and negative, encouraging the positive emotions as worthy of our attention and driving our negative emotions as problems that require treatment if they persist for a long time.
Traditionally, our institutions including family, marriage, religion, education, and work have socialised us to aspire to and cultivate emotions that lead to consumption, efficiency, and productivity. As a result, emotions that reveal human fragility or do not promote social integrity, i.e. the negative emotions have been seen as an individual vice or falling under the domain of psychiatry or psychological disorders, serving no purpose.
In her profound and paradigm-shifting book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair (2003), psychotherapist and author Miriam Greenspan throws light on the inevitable need to address negative or dark emotions. Born to Holocaust survivors, Greenspan witnessed her parents grieve and build a life of meaning, finding her initial lessons in the possibility of transformation of negative emotions.
The loss of her first-born son Aaron brought her in direct contact with grief and despair, the ground for “emotional alchemy” that set in motion her healing and return to reality.
Greenspan turns our attention to the wisdom in negative emotions and our cultural disposition to avoid or be cautious of their purpose. Much like the positive emotions, our negative emotions – anger, despair, fear, numbness – require our acceptance, attention, and tolerance. Greenspan reiterates that each negative emotion narrates its own purpose; grief brings us out of our illusion of individuality and makes us find interconnectedness in the seeming disorder; fear creates space for attention and brings us to face the real and unreal; and, despairing emotions are an opportunity to see all that we have suppressed in ourselves.
Befriending our negative emotions is not easy. Greenspan encourages practitioners to prepare themselves for a nonlinear process that is often chaotic than provides answers.
Yet, in the present scenario with its impending challenges, we may need to surrender to the wisdom in the negative emotions. Our consistent exposure to natural and manmade catastrophes, institutionalized sexism, racism, casteism, exploitation, and violence has resulted in a heightened state of anxiety and fear making us prone to aggression, depression, numbness, and violence. Our collective inability to look at the cause and content of negative emotions furthers our collective suffering as a species. The violent disturbance in our natural world is only an expression of our inner state of dishevel and disarray.
Once we embark on the path of negative emotions, difficult as it is, we begin witnessing a change in our responsiveness to events around us. Greenspan writes realising that our emotions are connected to and a result of larger conditions beyond ourselves helps us “de-pathologize” our emotions.
Amidst the chaos and disorder, we often find commonalities in our collective emotions (positive and negative) as we respond to social and global conditions. It is as if new meanings begin to appear where only a few or none existed and we find ourselves redefining what we have learned from our culture.
The path of negative emotions can help us arrive at the point of union where we are one with ourselves, one with humanity, and one with life.