A generous look at dark emotions

From the wonderful Reflections on Darkness project – my contribution takes a look at the value in dark emotions – looking favourably at sadness, fear and anger…



My main fascination with this blog is finding more generous perspectives on darkness. I enjoy playing with concepts anyway, but darkness is such a beautifully rich concept, and we miss out on beauty if we limit it to the bad side of good vs. bad.

With this in mind, last year I offered up four new metaphors for darkness. Each tried to add some texture to how we see the dark, and loosen up the “Light as Good / Darkness as Evil”metaphor that dominates. I proposed

  • Light as Noise / Darkness as Quiet
  • Light as Plutonic / Darkness as Romantic
  • Light as Public / Darkness as Private
  • Light as Toil / Darkness as Rest

This year I want to look at the virtue of dark emotions. Where darkness is “the partial or total absence of light” and the absent light can be thought of (from a metaphorical and iconic perspective) as “all the more joyous emotions of the mind, all the pleasing sensations of the frame, all the happy hours of domestic intercourse”. Classifying emotions isn’t straightforward but one meaningful study holds that there are six basic or fundamental human emotions: Joy, Love, Surprise, Sadness, Anger and Fear. So life in the light would be full of Joy and Love, with an unexpected dose of Surprise. And the dark life would abound with Sadness, Anger and Fear. If we take this as a starting point, can we find value in the dark?

Well, I still remember when Jim McNeish broke part of my mind in two by telling me that instead of trying to be more happy, I might try to be more alive. As someone well versed in looking on bright sides, it was hard to get my head around. But the more I’ve sat with it over the last few years, the more true it feels. Our societal obsession with happiness is, under scrutiny, both impractical and insufficient. Life serves us situations where optimism isn’t enough. Enthusiasm won’t get us through grief. We shouldn’t be content with atrocities. And danger isn’t a delusion. Furthermore, things that we are so deeply committed to – challenging careers, community, personal change, and children – all fill our lives with unhappy headaches as often as serene satisfaction.

So lets peer into the darkness and see what there is to celebrate.

A Dark Cloud
Sadness makes us stop. We are one minute rushing around and then we are static under the physical force. Under heaviness we can’t carry, we slump. And if we don’t hide away from shame, other rushers will notice us, and stop too. We are a reminder to them that there are more important things than activities of the day, and they don’t mind to come and sit with us a while. Without sadness where is empathy?

A Dark Roar
Something hits a nerve and heat rushes up our back, surging us into action. We are rash, paying no heed to convention and putting politeness on a pause. We are angry and our anger pushes us into action. Anger drives us through previously intimidating resistance. Every meaningful action has an impact, and we may do lasting damage. It is with anger that we reshape our world.

A Dark Horizon
Our hands quake at the prospect of things going wrong. We know what we want to happen, and truthfully it might not. We are vulnerable. Maybe we will be hurt? Maybe those we love will be hurt? The world is a risk and we need every deep breath as we carefully consider the consequences. We have seen things go wrong before. If we decide to step forwards, our fear might become our confidence. But without fear we are all fools.

The good news is that it is possible to make some space for these dark emotions without plunging all the way into devastation, rage and terror. And trying to hide from our emotional range will leave us poorer. For “The walls we build to keep sadness out, also keep out joy”. Fear, anger and sadness are rightly known as challenging emotions. But if we get better at allowing and mastering them we may find ourselves more skilful with Joy, Love and Surprise —and maybe The Light is even harder to handle.

What do you think?

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