Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Finding Peace in Sadness

**I wrote this last week before the events in Paris, Sinai and Beruit. It's funny that I think it more relevant now than ever.

This is the time of year that The Husband and I start catching up on all of the worthwhile films we missed due to our antipathy toward the modern cinema-going experience. We haven't sworn off movies, but rather going to the movies. Hence our recent love affair with Netflix, pay-per-view, and Apple TV. Last week we finally got the chance to settle in and watch Pixar's latest masterpiece Inside Out. The story follows young Riley as she and her family move from their comfortable Midwest home and relocate in San Francisco. Her emotions--Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear--are all in conflict as they struggle to navigate Riley through the new situations she faces.

I could sit here and wax poetic about the sheer genius of the film, and trust me it is f***ing brilliant, or I could spend several paragraphs on my unadulterated passion for all things Pixar. But instead I very much want to focus on my favourite character in the movie, Sadness. (By the way, the casting of Phyllis Smith in this role is inspired. She is flat out perfect.)

Sadness captivated me from the very beginning. She is coloured blue. She is short, kind of schlumpy, hunched over, and in a constant state of exhaustion. Her voice sounds chronically depleted. She is an outcast from the other emotions and tends to keep to herself for fear of ruining everybody's "happy girl." Joy is forever trying to isolate her and keep her away from Riley's memory balls for fear that Sadness will tinge every recollection with her special brand of melancholy. In short, Sadness is the emotion that all the other emotions do not want to deal with at all.

And....neither do the other people in Riley's life. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, all want to see the happy joyful Riley. They tend to overlook the moments when Sadness takes over her being because Sadness is often so painful to address and far easier to ignore.

Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist who specializes in emotion, social interaction, power and social perception, and behaviour, and was a consultant to director Pete Docter on the film states:
One, [emotions] are really critical to how we look at the world—our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes.
The second thing is more subtle to perceive in the movie, and it's something that we've been arguing for in my lab: People in different traditions like to refer to emotions with a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. If I'm falling in love with somebody, everything that I do in that euphoria of love—buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the individual's hair—it's textured by the feeling, and it sets up these patterns of how we relate to each other. Those scenes in particular with Riley's fights with parents and running away and coming back are all about sadness. That's what it really got right. Emotions shape how we relate to other people.
We tend to disregard sadness because we would rather our memories are filled with happy and positive experiences. But our emotions are malleable. Sometimes they are all jumbled together in order to create one single memory. By discounting one and only focusing on the others, we are neglecting the whole picture and all of the individual moments that went into making that memory. Dr. Keltner continues:
You may think your memories are a factual representation of events, but in fact we lose a lot of information. Memory is imperfect, that's OK, and emotions are part of the reconstruction of the past. People say they get it, but once you portray that artistically, then people are crying and struck by the existential truth of that notion.
In other words, Sadness matters. We navigate our way to joy and contentment through a maze of competing emotions. How can we possibly understand or appreciate our euphoria if we refuse to acknowledge and deal with the dolefulness?

I am always underwhelmed by people who are in a constant state of positivity and attempting to impose those emotions on others. You know the type? They're the ones who are filling up your Facebook feed with positive affirmation statements. It isn't that I have a problem with their optimistic outlook, it is that I am suspicious that negativity seems to have been banished from their lifestyles. Life is a balance and from an emotional perspective neither extreme is good. Once more from Dr. Keltner:
One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can't. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.
Obviously it is far more complex than can be gleaned from a two hour Pixar movie. What is important is that we learn to recognize our emotions and how they control every aspect of our lives. There is no magic bullet to achieving balance and the journey is complicated and filled with a myriad of pitfalls, but we cannot get to where we want to be by denying a huge chunk of our emotional psyche. Sometimes sadness takes over. Understand it. Own it. Feel it.

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