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Why Difficult Emotions are Good

PranavMutatkar
PranavMutatkar
. 6 min read
Why Difficult Emotions are Good

My friend, mood mastery maestro (still workshopping catchy names), Nick Wignall wrote a great article on the book, The Prophet.

I particularly loved this:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain… When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” [- The Prophet]
[Nick’s Thoughts:] “To find peace of mind and lightness of heart, learn to see all your emotions as an artist sees their subject: as something beautiful and terrible and endlessly fascinating, never right or wrong, but always miraculous.” [emphasis mine].

On a call for his online course, Nick said something related to this idea that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

He said that one metaphor for thinking about “negative” and “positive” emotions is like a devil and an angel on our shoulders.

Quiz: Are You Kronk's Shoulder Angel or Shoulder Devil? | Oh My Disney

The “negative” emotions are the devil whispering in one ear, and the “positive” emotions are the angel whispering in another ear.

Nick said that most people try to diminish the devil or stop listening to it, but what most people actually need is to make the angel bigger.

The shift in mindset is that the “negative” emotion devil isn’t the enemy. He’s actually a friend. Sometimes he says things that are pretty dumb. But if you have the friends I have, you’ve heard some truly inane shit. Doesn’t mean you love them any less.

Once you learn to love the devil, you see through his occasional dumb advice and can see his good qualities. Sometimes he gives great profound advice. Sometimes he propels you to act where there is injustice. Sometimes he tells you to take time to grieve when you are suffering. Sometimes he shows you your childish, playful, rogue side.

show off the emperors new groove GIF

When Nick talked about this, it made me think of sprezzatura. Sprezzatura was basically the “woke up like this” of Renaissance Italy. Here’s how Louis from Constant Renewal explains it:

Courtiers in medieval times had difficult jobs. They had to keep the support and favour of the ruler in order to remain relevant. To do so, they had to be skilled not just in arms and athletics, but also in music and dance.

It’s obvious then that they had to train relentlessly to attain proficiency in so many fields. But in an environment which valued entertainment and intrigue above all else, it was important that courtiers not be seen exerting conscious effort into the deeds they performed. This added value to their performances and allowed them to keep the favour of their patrons.

The Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione thought that this quality — the ability to display a certain nonchalance — was the hallmark of the ideal courtier. The idea was to make every movement and statement appear to be effortless and without thought. He called this sprezzatura.

There are two ways to look at sprezzatura. There are Instagram models who use inauthentic filters and photo skills as a way of covering up their insecurities. They think they’re embodying sprezzatura, but everybody can see the sweat they put in. If it takes that much work to look good, it makes us doubt them. They just seem fake.

Then there are others who are the opposite. They seem to embody sprezzatura. They’re the charismatic people you meet once in a lifetime who just seem to pull you in. They’re the characters in the movies we want to become. They’re the embodiment of cool.

sexy star wars GIF

These people have probably worked hard at getting to where everything they do seems magical. But we see none of the sweat.

These people are able to be ridiculously charismatic because they’re the most themselves. They may not always display the totality of their personality to others, but they hide nothing of themselves, to themselves. They have huge devils and huge angels (I guess sometimes bigger is better). They’re charismatic because they let themselves experience more of life than we do. They’re the most alive.

So many of us try to block out the devil, but having only the angel is so boring. Despite what we say outwardly, we are just as attracted to the devilish imperfections in others. We are attracted to charismatic people because they always do the right thing, but also because they do it with a twinkle in their eye.

So the obvious question is how can we learn to love the devil? How can we learn to love the moments in which our bodies and our minds seemingly betray us?

I came across a beautiful article from Ellis Avery that talks about this very thing. She had an advanced case of reactive arthritis that left her unable to walk. She had to wear a boot and ride a mobility scooter everywhere, wondering if she would ever walk again.

This isn’t the real me, I wanted to tell the world. This time doesn’t count. When I walk again, that’s when I’ll be real.

Later, as she recovered, she watched surfers in her apartment that overlooked Bondi Beach (a premier surfing destination). Watching surfers, she noticed something:

I noticed that the time they spent standing on their boards, riding waves — doing what nonsurfers would call surfing — was minimal compared with the time they spent bobbing around in the water next to the board, generally going nowhere. Even the really good surfers spend far more time off the board than on it.

If you added up the seconds that a good surfer actually spent riding the waves, it would amount to only the smallest fraction of an entire life. Yet surfers are surfers all the time. They are surfers while they are working their crap jobs, daydreaming about surfing. They are surfers when they wake up at 4 in the morning…They are surfers when they paddle out on their boards. They are surfers when they wait and wait for the right wave. They are surfers when they wipe out, thrashing around blindly in the waves, praying the board doesn’t crack their skulls. They are surfers when they sit by their trucks with their friends after surfing, silently eating their grain-bowl meals.

She realized that not only were surfers, surfers all the time…they didn’t regret the time they weren’t actually “surfing.” They were happy with it. It makes her reflect on her own struggles:

Could I do that? Could I be happy even when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to walk the next day, or whether I’d be alive a year from now? Could the time I might spend in the humiliating, tedious boot and scooter somehow count as mine? Instead of waiting to be well so I could be myself again, could I be me while sick, too? Could I declare myself a surfer all the time, and seize that happiness?

Our bodies and our emotions are rickety. They can seem to betray us. We can feel trapped in sick failing bodies and in sick minds racked with depression and anxiety. We can feel as if we are fighting our bodies.

But we must see our bodies, not as cages but as art, “beautiful and terrible and endlessly fascinating, never right or wrong, but always miraculous.”

We must remind ourselves that as flawed and broken as our bodies are, they’re also small miracles. They help us in profound ways. It’s only because of their complex miracles that we are aware of how they sometimes fail us.

If I’ve learned anything it’s that you can’t block the devil out. On bad days, let yourself feel bad. It’s okay. But every day, even the bad ones…

Commit to being the most alive.