May is crazy. Perhaps it is because we are actively in the midst of it all, magnifying the events to larger than life appearance but, for whatever reason, there is much ado about everything these days. School events, May Day celebrations, birthdays, final games, recitals and field trips make their annual appearance while the usual daily fervor of work, school, lessons, music, coaching and practice escalates, invigorated by the longer hours of daylight, delightfully warmer temperatures and general sense of merriment scored by the spring season. These days are equal parts joyful and exhausting, which are beginning to seem an inseparable dichotomy of feelings and lead me to contemplate the concept of embracing the negative, a notion that has offered itself as a recurrent theme in many of the books and podcasts supporting my learning recently.
In a world where we are often encouraged to seek happiness as the ultimate emotion, and in my own profession where I am focused on seeing the health, it can seem almost taboo to have negative thoughts and feelings and simply unacceptable to concentrate on the negative. As I contemplated this, the lyrics of a long-ago song played on repeat in my head:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
Now, I can get behind the utility of seeing the good, embracing the health and shining a light on what is right with ourselves, our communities and the world, but I do think admonishing the existence of the opposite can be a dangerous line to walk. It is unfair and unrealistic to ignore that negative feelings, unpleasant situations and plain and simple bad things are going to happen. Middlest displayed this effect directly when, overwhelmed by less-than-optimistic-emotion, he looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and stated, “you’re not going to like this…but I’m just not happy all the time!” What an inconceivably impossible task to achieve – all-the-time-happiness! I quickly scanned back through all the dialogue I had provided for this to be his personal expectation – comments such as “what can you control? Attitude and effort…” “Your feelings are a personal choice, choose to make it better and not worse.”
While certainly I would want for him to live more deeply rooted in a positive, loving state of mind and heart, I more strongly wish for him (and all of us!) to embrace (and be able to handle) the full range of human emotions. Greater than limitless happiness is the capacity to feel it all – happy, sad, joyful, angry, brave, fearful, resilient, guilty, curious, confused, grateful, frustrated, encouraged, deflated, calm, excited, tired – to understand it all as part of humanity, to accept it all in ourselves and others, to hold the weight of it all with strength, to make space for it all with grace, to move between it all with the agility of a competent emotional being and recognize that without the negative companion, the positive aspect would likely lack luster.
While I certainly don’t wish ill on my patients, family, friends or community, I must recognize that there is pathology in many forms interrupting the fullest manifestations of health. Rather than ignore it, I must acknowledge the presence of dis-ease, sit with it, uncomfortable though that may be, to better understand it – how it came to be, what is contributing to its perseveration and truly explore the capacity for change. This might be best framed as potential transformation of the whole person in relationship with this “negative” aspect of his/her health. Resolution may not be an option, but a shift in the engagement with the ailment always is.
The more I have explored the acceptance and even welcome of negative emotion, the more I see that our attempts to seek the positive at all costs can lead us out of our truest self, out of the moment and render us unable to just be. This is not to say that we should seek a depressive state, or that we have to act on every negative emotion that comes through, but we should be open and at least tolerant of any feeling that arises rather than resisting, ignoring or trying to change that feeling before it has a moment to speak its truth or establish the framework for future, fuller sensations of all sorts.
I often tell patients (and occasionally athletes in the gym!) that pain has a purpose – it is alerting us to something that is not right in our bodies – that our nervous system is waving a red flag and asking for help. We can ignore that pain, tell ourselves we should just power through and hope we work it out…or we can listen – not surrender, but listen – and assess what might be the trigger – is it truly just of the body? Was there a tweak of a muscle, ligament, joint or nerve? Is it of the mind? Are we truly hitting a point of maximal fatigue or a place of fear that we might not succeed? Is it of the spirit? Have we maxed out our capacity in all arenas of life May-style and is our body lighting up the only SOS it has in the way of pain fibers, forcing us to rest, re-evaluate and reset?
Perhaps these negative emotions are serving that same purpose, perhaps they are a subtler version of physical pain, a prodrome if you will, and if we could tune in, listen and analyze sooner than later, we might save ourselves from more severe physical symptoms that arise as a last-ditch effort to get us to be present in ourselves and attend to our personal needs. In my exploration of this concept, I was struck by the latter portion of this definition of negative:
“a photographic image made on film or specially prepared glass that shows the light and shade or color values reversed from the original, and from which positive prints can be made”
Though we are now a generation removed from film-based cameras, indeed it has been many years since I have held that strip of 5 miniature, reverse-colored images up to the light to determine which full-color, large-as-life moment I would like to reproduce, this simple description of the intricate and fluid relationship amongst original, negative and positive struck me as a critical acknowledgment of the relativity, reciprocity and requisition of negatives for a complete picture in life, for the fullest experience.
May we all, middlest included, expand our palates to taste the vast flavor of emotions life has to offer. May our approach be as enthusiastic and broad as the madness of May, landing us joyfully exhausted at the end of the experience, satisfied that we have successfully sampled the flight of feelings that unites us in humanity.