As we journey through life, we experience both positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions for most of us would include these: joy, gratitude, awe, love, serenity, hope, interest, a sense of purpose, satisfaction. Negative emotions might include these: fear, sadness, loneliness, inadequacy, shame, frustration, helplessness, failure. In short, we tend to welcome the positive emotions into our lives. At the same time, we tend to shun the negative ones. Who says, “I feel so lonely and afraid… Yippee!”?
Because negative emotions tend to make us uncomfortable, we sometimes try to numb them. There are all kinds of things we can use to numb or take the edge off negative emotions. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brene Brown lists many things that, if used excessively, can numb us to our pain. One big one is alcohol or other drugs. But other “stuff” can be used as anesthetizers too, such as work, food, sex, gambling, staying busy, shopping, surfing the internet, and seeking constant change.
It is important to remember that both positive and negative emotions can play a significant role in our maturing process—and in our spiritual life. In fact, God often “speaks” to us through our positive and negative emotions. When I give talks on hope, I often quote St. Augustine who said that anger (which we often think of as a negative emotion) is one of the daughters of hope! How can that be? An example might help. We can experience rightful anger when we see an injustice, that is, when we see something that should not be—like bullying, racism, sexism, human trafficking, elder abuse. Our anger can be the impetus we need to help right a wrong.
Brene Brown devotes a section in her book on the role numbing can play in our lives. She begins with this honest acknowledgement: “I’ve spent most of my life trying to outrun vulnerability and uncertainty,” the essence of negative emotions. We all have our little (or big) anesthetizers when we’re experiencing our vulnerability. One of mine is work. I can throw myself into my writing as a way to numb uncomfortable emotions. But taking time to deal with my pain, sadness, or anxiety can be very beneficial for my personal growth.
As I read Brown’s words, I thought about Jesus. Even a cursory reading of the gospels shows us that he did not go through life anesthetized. On the contrary, Jesus allowed himself to experience both positive and negative emotions. Here are a few examples:
+ He experienced positive emotions: the love of his parents and extended family… the companionship of close friends… the joy of parties… the satisfaction of drawing large crowds… his deep sense of purpose… the fun of playing with children… The delight of finding an extraordinarily compassionate Roman soldier… the awe of going up into the hills to pray… the gratitude for creation… the comfort he found in nature as a reflection of his Father’s love and care… his profound intimacy with God nourished by his daily prayer.
And Jesus experienced negative emotions as well: the animosity of religious leaders… his disappointment when his closest disciples didn’t get his message… the disconnect with some of his family members… the deep sadness at the deaths of John the Baptist, the son of the widow of Naim, and his good friend Lazarus… his helplessness to touch Judas’ heart… his sense of failure as he realized his mission was taking him to the cross… his utter loneliness—most especially in Gethsemane… the sense of abandonment on the cross when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
At the end of her section on numbing, Brown raises the question: What helps us live with negative emotions and with uncomfortable vulnerability in a resilient way? Her book (though not a religious book per se), gives this answer: spirituality. Brown defines spirituality as “connecting with God.” She says when we are dealing with anxiety, stress, trauma, it is spirituality that can give us “a sense of purpose, meaning, and perspective in our lives…. (Without these) it is easy to lose hope, numb our emotions, or become overcome by circumstances.”
Let us conclude this reflection with a short prayer:
Loving Jesus, help me to remain open to life… to all of life. Help me to embrace the positive emotions I may experience on any given day: love, joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, awe, satisfaction, a sense of purpose… And help me to accept the negative emotions too: fear, sadness, loneliness, shame, frustration, helplessness, failure. May I realize that you can speak to me through all my experiences—and not merely the ones I find comfortable. And it is by engaging with my life experiences that I can grow into the person you are inviting me to become. Jesus, you drew your strength and resiliency for living from your intimacy with the Father, an intimacy nourished by your life of daily prayer. I ask for the grace to follow in your footsteps. Amen.
Did anything in this reflection stand out for you? If so, what?
Do you ever try to numb negative emotions? If so, what do you use as an anesthetizer?
Has an experience of a negative emotion or your vulnerability ever led to growth in your life? Are you a better person because you acknowledged and worked with your negative emotions?
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St. Paul writes, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). This song by Jaime Jamgochian is based on that belief. Whatever may be happening in your life right now, whether positive or negative experiences, trust that God can use everything in your life to bring about good.
I welcome your comments below!