I’ve never seen my father loose his temper. I’ve never heard him raise his voice or witnessed his silent anger. Not once. Not ever. And while my mother was a more passionate presence in my life, I’ve never seen my parents fight. I don’t know if they literally took their arguments outside or waited until we children were asleep, but for as far back as I can remember, the only conflicts I experienced in our house arose between my siblings and me.
Just last week, a friend (“Alice”) recently shared her wonder at a woman (“Joy”) whose disposition was so sunny despite her life seeming (from the outside) more challenging than her own (namely living in a smaller amount of room with a larger family).
Both Alice and Joy are married and raising young children in the city, but although Alice sometimes struggles with her anger and her marriage, Joy considers every day with her husband to be like Christmas.
This got me thinking about how dissimilarly different people can experience identical things. I’m convinced that if you put five people through the same week, one would finish frustrated, another content, the third depressed, and the other two somewhere else.
What is it that separates people like my father who seem so even-tempered from those like Alice who so easily slip into fits of anger? How is Joy able to maintain not just her sanity but her happiness when she is under so much parental pressure?
I think happiness (like any emotion) comes more easily to some than others. Some people get angry easily. Some people effortlessly feel joy or worry. Some people grow sad at the drop of a hat and grieve more deeply.
A person can change how easily s/he achieves any emotion (anger, joy, sadness, etc.), but it takes work—a lot of work. Not many of us, even those of us whose predispositions cause our own suffering (or that of those we love), are willing to expend the effort it takes to gain emotional health and control.
Additionally, some feelings are compounded—they have cumulative properties. For example, during my wedding planning season, every time my mother-in-law contradicted or criticized my decisions or wishes (sometimes overtly sometimes inadvertently), I grew more annoyed because of the previous time. My husband, on the other hand, viewed each or her requests/impositions/criticisms as an isolated inconvenience. One had nothing to do with the other. Each day he wiped clean his slate of grievances regarding her.
When I’m depressed, that’s my experience of happiness—each instance of it is an isolated (and fleeting) experience. Today’s joy has no bearing on tomorrow. For me, depression is compounded daily and happiness has its slate wiped clean. Not until I fully exit my season of sadness can I savor and store joy or any of the other lighter feelings.
For some, the cumulative versus blank slate experience is also dependent on the other people involved. For example, in the aftermath of a vacation with my brother and sister (and the annoyances and disappointments that trip made my husband and me feel), my husband needed a prolonged period of time away from them, but after a day or two, the tide of my irritation had receded.
It was the opposite for us when it was his family in question. In the months of planning preceding our wedding, we had a number of minor disagreements with his mother. I routinely felt that I was spending too much time addressing or accommodating her preferences. While my husband was able to see each of her requests with fresh eyes, I grew exponentially more annoyed. Each time I felt she was imposing on us, my irritation was amplified.
The cumulative versus blank slate effect can be for better or for worse. When my closest family and friends elicit happiness, it is cumulative. And when they engender frustration or anger in me, the slate is usually wiped clean. Their past transgressions have little bearing on the present and their positive deposits get stored and infused with meaning. So when I consider the relationship, the collective effect of the whole is positive. It is therefore ever easier for me to feel good around them.
The other side to that coin is the person whom I find difficult to forgive or tolerate. Instead of getting a blank slate for irritations with each day and a storehouse for positive feelings, s/he has a record that’s held against her/him and few (if any) long-term commendations.
For some, emotions slide along a spectrum—an earthquake event can dramatically dwarf or enlarge them. Once I had lost my mother unexpectedly and my world was irreparably shaken, no loss could compare. Everything else seemed significantly smaller stacked against my bereavement.
When my husband and I saw our apartment destroyed due to a fire, people kept remarking on how well we were handling it. My husband’s resilience had another source, but for me, loosing stuff was negligible when stacked against the death of my mother.
Imagine the person whose spectrum is broad and for whom anger or sadness comes easily and is also compounded. And now imagine the person who experiences joy that way. Put them through identical weeks and they will each emerge with a completely different perspective.
Feelings don’t happen in a vacuum. There are both exterior and internal forces that evoke our emotions. Some we’re aware of. Some operate without our knowledge. The deeper we dig into the recesses of our mind, motives, and emotions, the better equipped we’ll be to walk through the world with understanding, compassion, and love (for ourselves and others).
The topic of feelings is one I revisit fairly frequently. And I always think that the following qualification is necessary:
Emotions are never wrong. You are entitled to feel them all. It is harmfully imposing your emotions onto others that you need to be careful of.
Feeling is the easier part. The challenge some of us struggle with (especially with those emotions of a heavier or darker variety) is finding appropriate and healthy external expressions for what is happening in your heart and mind.
Your emotions are not licenses to speak and act however you please. They are meant to illuminate your values and inner self for others (and yourself) to see.
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1,4