Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Value of the Negative

I've been seeing a lot lately about the value of "positive thinking", and the destructive and painful influence of hate and negative thoughts. This is hardly a new idea; books like "The Power of Positive Thinking" and "You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought" are classics of self-help literature. "The Secret" and its discussion of the "law of attraction" certainly correlates to this idea, by suggesting that what you affirm comes to you. If you think positively about an outcome, that outcome will happen. In general, I have no disagreement with this approach. It's healthy to see loss and setback as opportunity for positive change, and a positive outlook on life generally makes you happier.

However, there are some difficulties with this approach. First--life is not all "positive" experiences. We tend to define positive experiences as those that make us emotionally happy, or at least as those experiences that do not harm us. Negative experiences are seen as traumatizing and harmful. While there are probably some black-and-white examples, these terms are often subjective. As my guru has said, "A rash of deaths in a town may be bad for the families but good for the undertaker." A lot of it has to do with perspective.

A little side note about myself--I am extremely emotionally sensitive. This might surprise you if you know me, because I don't come across that way a lot of the time. I often take my father's approach to tragedy--I say "Hmm, that's too bad" and go back to whatever I was doing. Some people therefore assume that I am uncaring. In fact, the opposite is true--I'm in danger of caring too much. Some people have defined me as "empathic", and that could be true. I am like the house on the hurricane-battered coast; in order to defend my house, I build a wall around it. I take a somewhat stoic view of life, because I am intellectually aware that life is paradoxical in that it always brings death, whether I like it or not. But I do listen to others, and I am genuinely interested when students or friends come to me with issues, either to have someone help or just to have someone to listen. I am very wary of those who I feel manipulate and take advantage of my good nature--that is the fast track to being on my permanent sh*tlist.

One thing I don't share about myself often to the wide world is that I read Tarot. I have read Tarot since about 1986, and the reason has to do with what it tells me about the unconscious. It is a psychological tool. Jung believed that Tarot worked through the principle of synchronicity--the order of cards is technically meaningless, yet in looking at them, they seem to give a message about something that has bothered me, or gives me a sense of where I'm at when I feel at a loss. In this way, they work the same as dream symbols--they are something to be interpreted that tells us about what the archetypes are doing in our lives. There are Jungian therapists who use Tarot in this way. If they tell you about the future, it is also through the synchronicity principle, as accessing the collective unconscious means accessing something not bound by space and time.

I almost never do public readings, and I've never really done them for money. One exception was a charity event where a friend asked if I would read, and donate the proceeds to the charity. I agreed to do it, and I was stunned by the long lines of people who wanted me to read for them. They were all people hurting terribly--suffering with cancer, having lost close family members, etc. By the time we were closing up I was STILL finishing readings. I went home that night feeling dizzy, and spent much of the next morning throwing up. I absorb people's grief like a sponge. This is also why I don't watch many movies--anything that hits my senses directly is like a raw hit in the gut, even if others can laugh it off. It's never been easy for me to do that. Academia and analytic thinking has served as a barrier for me against raw emotion. I think of it as a balancing act. Some rational distance from emotion is a good thing, just as having a small creek or pond is nice, as opposed to be threatened by ocean waves at your front door.

This is also the main quarrel between my mother and I. My mother is another one who feels grief deeply, but she does not put up barriers, and it is destroying her physically, if not psychologically. And the reason leads to my next point--she feels guilty, as though she is a compassionless person by putting up boundaries.

We are not martyrs, and have a right not to experience painful things all the time. We all develop coping mechanisms. But part of the problem as a society is that our mythology tells us that having negative or bad thoughts is, well, "bad". In religious terms, it is "sinful". In my mother's case, she was raised by a Catholic Church that told her that God read all her thoughts and counted the bad ones against her. She is not alone in this kind of upbringing, though I can't say that was entirely my upbringing. What I say is--YES, you have negative thoughts, and YES it is perfectly fine to have them. The best place to operate from is the Center, and in the Center neither good nor bad thoughts prevail--it just IS. But our lives tend to swing from one side to the other, and that is OK--in a certain sense, we are all trying to achieve Hegelian synthesis, or use what Jung calls "the transcendent function". It is better to integrate the experience rather than to repress it or get hopelessly lost in it.

What we define as "negative" can also vary depending on our upbringing. For instance, some people think that lustful or rebellious thoughts are "bad". It is those thoughts in particular, as well as our genuine emotional expressions when we feel hurt, that I am referring to when I say it's OK to have negative thoughts.

Carl Jung stated that "the brighter the light, the darker the shadow". I am moderately suspicious of people who are positive/happy/loving all the time. If your light is very bright, I sincerely hope that you are addressing your shadow, and not trying to externalize it, offload it, or make it go away. There is only one kind of mythical creature without a shadow, and that is a vampire. All of us feel what is "negative" and what is dark. Why else is Grumpy Cat so popular, the sweet kitty who tells you to go jump off a cliff? Why do undergraduate females in particular love the rage and angst of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems? Why do we love the cynical, dark humor of Dorothy Parker? Because deep down, we all rebel against a world that is a mask of positivity. Like the Christmas truce of the troops in World War I, occasionally we like to play ball with the "bad guys" (who, by the way, are not necessarily "bad"). The deep psychological split between what is "good" and what is "evil" has convinced us that every thought outside of what we deem "good" is something about which we should feel guilty and ashamed. This is a problem.

The "problem" lies in the simple phenomena of psychological projection. If you do not own your own "badness" and feel OK with it, then you only see it in others and never in yourself. This leads to self-righteousness (I'm so good, and that other person is a creep), and sometimes outright persecution of others. In the worst cases, it leads to genocide--exterminating a people because they are full of so-called "negative" characteristics that might taint the "pure" ones. I don't need to tell you how that worked out in World War II Germany. And though many fundamentalists would never commit genocide or murder, there is the sense of avoiding "sinful" people unless you are trying to "save" them. Being the "good" one (or ones) while everyone else is "bad" is a problem, and it comes from not owning your own badness. "God" may be inside of you, but so is the "Devil", and they're not as separate as you would think. If Satan tests Job with God's approval, that tells you something about the nature of that relationship. The "devil" or "trickster" appears in your life to make you uncomfortable, and usually it's for your own benefit, if you have decided that living complacently with something harmful to you is better than confronting it. If one hasn't wrestled with life and suffering to some degree, they haven't lived it.

Alan Watts said in his eulogy at Carl Jung's death that he admired Jung "because Jung knew that he was a villain, and didn't have guilt about it." If you can't embrace your own darkness, then you will judge others, not forgive them. You will not recognize that you too are capable of "bad" things, not realize that someone's hurtful mistake could just as easily be your own.

In this sense, I am against being "positive" all the time, because we need to admit when we're not positive without shame. As I said to someone recently, this doesn't mean that we direct our anger, hatred, and hurt to others in harmful ways. You can be angry at your ex without chucking a brick through his or her window, even if you feel like it. Both ignoring our feelings and getting obsessed with them long term is not helpful. Balance is important.

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