Sadness is not an enemy – it’s a strength

When people around us are sad, we try to cheer them up. At best, everybody should be smiling and happy, we think, and they should always do such things that people do when they are happy – sing, dance, drink, play golf, go to the theater, whatever.

Human beings are equipped with many skills. Some of them are physical, others of a more psychological nature. If you by accident put your hand on a hot boiler plate, your combined physical and psychological skills will make you quickly drag your hand away, thereby limiting the damage. The conseived physical pain will then last for some time, forcing you to rest your hand and allow for it to heal and make you consider how to deal with hot boiler plates in the future. The physical pain will help you in several ways.

Mental pain serves the same purpose. If you have experienced a loss, you will feel sad. That should force you into a situation where you get a better overview of your feelings, your knowledge, and your preferred way forwards. An example is when someone close to you dies. You might have had many things in common, many shared activities in life, and the period of sorrow and sadness that follows your loss will help you understand that now this is over – and let you gradually find a new way forward, where the old way remains as a memory.

My mother, who died recently, was very clear about it: “It is good to be sad sometimes. It is necessary in order to be a complete person. Hiding the sadness or trying to remove it with medicine or the like will just mean that certain things never get thought through, never will be dealt with. The problems will remain, now only hidden”. She was very wise.

Recently the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo experienced a terrible episode of terrorist madness and the death of many employees in a deed that must have been a truly shocking experience for everyone. But on TV a spokesman from the paper told with a big smile that they were not sad, that the newspaper would continue as usual, etc., as if this was simply just one of those small problems that appear every day.

This is how we (men) show strength – by pretending that we are completely unaffected by whatever has hit us. By not admitting our loss, not showing our sadness. Maybe that man on TV made this statement to show the terrorists and their sponsors that they had not won. In the honor of the lost colleagues, who by that would become kind of soldiers who died for a good cause, rather than victims of the bad guys’ superior strength.

What probably would have shown more strength was – sadness. Open and admitted. The display of the strength to deal with the problem rather than ignoring it. I am not blaming the man for saying the wrong thing. On the contrary, I feel with him and I can imagine how terrible it must be for him and his remaining colleagues to have been part of such a drama.

But it might be that people in similar situations would do better with having feelings, and showing that they have them, and acting upon them in a proper way, thereby showing true superiority over the aggressors who only had simple violence on their repertoire. And it would probably help the victims better find their way forward again.

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Cruelty for ‘good’ reasons

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As amazing entertainment as The Lord of the Rings is, it will lead us astray if we take it literally. First, people will rarely do ‘evil’ knowingly. The Nazis and Pol Pot never saw themselves as evil, quite the contrary. The Romans never saw their gladiatorial games as evil. The real source of destruction is usually from people who believe they are fighting for good causes. Hitler believed that he was creating a more perfect and noble society with more perfect people – and he was a vegetarian because he hated cruelty to animals! It’s the individuals who justify their actions in this way who are the most worrying. This is certainly true on the international stage. To my mind, George Bush’s refusal to veto the use of such torture techniques as ‘water boarding’ (immobilizing an individual and pouring water over his or her face to simulate drowning) is an endorsement of cruelty. Such behaviour is concerning, too, because Bush has had all the privileges that come from having had a Western education and human rights. And he professes to be a Christian when it is obvious that, if Jesus were here today, he would never endorse torture. Yet in his own heart, Bush believes he’s doing good and defending his country. Remember the well-known saying: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ So we have to be careful because we often can’t see the archetypes working through us.

Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind, 2009