A World of Hurt

Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.

There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.

When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.

Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.

Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.

We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.

Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.

As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.

How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?

When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.

It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?

Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

What Are Emotions For?

Have you been afraid lately? Maybe while watching a horror film on the couch ? It’s that time of year, right?

Have you recently felt angry or confused? With this mess that we’re in, I’d be surprised if you weren’t.

How about joy–a wave of unadulterated bliss? The word joy can connote a kind of cheesy or naive thing. But some experiences are genuinely blissful. I hope you’ve had some of that recently.

Through the course of your life, you’ll experience the whole spectrum of emotions…

Anger

Apathy

Shame

Hate

Fear

Worry

Confusion

Jealousy

Envy

Panic

Sadness

Grief

Momentary Depression

Happiness

Contentment

Joy

Karla McLaren, in her book The Art of Empathy, organizes human emotions into the sixteen categories above. And, she further explains, each emotion can occur in soft, moderate, or very intense states. Anger, for example, can vary from irritated (soft) to aggravated (moderate) to enraged (intense). Even the same emotion at the same level of intensity can differ in sensation. Irritated is a little different than impatient, which are both slightly different than displeased. Even though they’re all fundamentally a soft form of anger.

Given the range of intensity for each emotion, and the subtleties of a particular intensity level, there are probably hundreds of distinct emotions we can each experience. To top it all off, we often feel multiple emotions (each one of different intensity) at the same time. Soft shame with intense worry with moderate sadness, for example. No wonder there are days when you just can’t adult.

Surely there’s a purpose to these rushes of feeling. Human beings have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’ve had emotions longer than we’ve had language and names for them. They must have been around for that long for a reason. What does it mean when we feel these sensations, and why are there these particular kinds of sensations–worry, jealousy, happiness, and the rest?

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, describes emotions as action-generating neurological programs. As a nerd, I like the precision of that description. But that’s a bit dry and abstract. Maybe we could think of emotions like the push-notifications on your phone. With phones, a notification pops up to alert you—based on some event or some person’s actions (a weather alert, a message from a friend, being tagged in a post, the final score of a game). You see the notification and what it’s for. Then you take the necessary action to complete the process (reply, like, swipe to see more, put on a jacket, celebrate in the streets, etc).

Emotions are like the push-notification system for our selves. When triggered, emotions draw our attention to things happening around us or to us that we need to respond to. Different emotions are triggered by different situations. Anger arises to “address challenges to your voice, standpoint, position, interpersonal boundaries, or self-image.” Contentment arises “to help you look toward yourself with pride and satisfaction.” And similarly for each of the other emotions.

With every emotion, there are a variety of responses we might carry out. Some are more helpful and some are (much) less helpful. To go back to our friend anger, if someone pisses you off, there are a lot of ways you can follow through on your anger. You could scream–at them or privately in another room. You could beat the crap out of someone or something. You could try to ignore or suppress the fire burning inside. You could acknowledge your anger and try to understand what challenged your voice, point of view, or personal boundaries.

When we’re not angry, it’s pretty easy to recognize that acknowledging anger (or any emotion) and maturely thinking through why we’re feeling it is probably the best route to go. But, of course, some emotions–especially in their intense state–can make it incredibly hard to be mature and thoughtful. We often react without thinking at all. A little while back when I was angry, I erupted instinctively and broke a window by throwing my wallet at it. Absolutely moronic. But for a moment it felt like a sweet release. The broken glass everywhere and the window in need of repair made it clear that was the wrong response.

So when an emotion arises–when our body gives us a notification about what life is doing to us in that moment–how can we better understand what needs to happen? What’s the right conclusion for the action-generating neurological program? Again, Karen McLaren is super helpful.

First, she says, you need to recognize and name the emotion you’re feeling (or emotions–plural–if there’s more than one at a time). We can get mixed up. It doesn’t help that often when someone is having a strong emotional experience we describe them simply as being emotional. Why is Andrew emotional right now? Ugh, I’m so emotional.

OK! There’s a lot of emotional activity going on. Which emotions? Sad is different than afraid or worried, but they can be confused. We have to learn how to identify the particular emotions–the notifications–we’re receiving. When an emotion wells up inside, take a moment to name it. It can be surprisingly revealing when you pinpoint what you’re feeling.

Next, you need to question the emotion. OK, I’m feeling angry. I know that I get the anger notification when my sense of self or personal space is challenged. So: “What needs to be protected? What must be restored?” Those are the key questions for anger. Each emotion has its own set of questions (check out McLaren’s book for the full list). Worry, to consider another emotion, “arises to help you organize, plan for, and complete your tasks…to help you orient to possible upcoming change, novelty, or hazard.” Worry happens when the path just ahead is uncertain. So, if you’ve identified that you’re feeling worried, ask yourself: “What triggered this feeling? What really needs to get done?” What got you going on this worry train? What do you need to do to be as ready as possible for what’s ahead?

Happiness, contentment, and joy are unique in that they give rise to statements rather than questions. If you’re feeling one of those three emotions, you simply get to say thanks. Whatever is going on in your life is rewarding. Savor it.

For the rest of the emotions, the ones that generate questions, the final step is to act. What did the answer(s) to the questions tell you? If you’ve nailed down the emotion is anger, did someone’s action invade your personal space or suggest you’re inferior? How are you going to address that with them in a mature and thoughtful way (rather than blowing up in their face or chucking a wallet at the window)?

Did you think someone slighted you but actually they didn’t? Sometimes the action is to check that what you think happened is what actually happened. We always need to go deeper than perceptions. As McLaren says, “…emotions are always true, because they’re always responding to emotionally evocative stimuli, but they’re not always right, because the stimuli may not be valid.”

If we go through all the steps of this action-generating neurological program reflectively and wisely–feeling, naming, asking, acting–we’ll finish it and be back to a place of balance. That’s the sign that your action was a fitting one. It takes practice, and we all blow it sometimes. Shame is an emotion, too–”to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others.” When we feel shame, the questions become: “Who has been hurt? What must be made right?” Those will get you on track to fixing things.

We have emotions for a reason. They draw our attention to what’s going on. Each sensation is unique to correspond with what’s happening. Ask the questions. Enjoy the rushes of happiness, contentment, and joy as they come. Emotions are the original notifications in our lives. Don’t swipe them away.