I’m glad to see that spring has sprung but there’s no denying that it has been a challenging start to the year for me.
I have been slowly getting back to work after my mother’s death on the 12th January. She always derived consolation from her work as a historian and biographer, and so do I from my own writing, whether of books, blogs or articles.
The last few months have also been a time of contemplation in the wake of mum’s death. As she herself said, there is a time to mourn. While I’m a big believer in the power of doing, there’s also a role for thinking and allowing our emotions, even difficult ones.
Negative emotions are not necessarily bad. While scientists have many theories about how many emotional systems we have, I find the three-system model developed by Professor Paul Gilbert the easiest to follow.
We have a threat system that includes emotions of anger, fear and disgust, which help us to identify dangers in the world; then a drive system, linked to excitement and joy, which motivates us; and finally a soothing system, which is linked to feelings of calm and safety, and which allows us to care for, and receive care from others. The key point is that all three systems evolved to allow us to survive, and all three are important.
Armed with this knowledge, I find it easier to rethink what I previously considered dark emotions. They are a natural and necessary part of the way humans are wired, and without emotions we would have no sense of values or what matters to us. Even supposedly rational decisions made by our cognitive brain are often based on our emotions. The Cartesian division between rational (our thinking brain) and irrational (our emotional brain) suggested by the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes (thus its name) is oversimplified. Both influence each other.
Emotions can also be a positive force for change – we can indeed sing in the rain! Sadness, for instance, can be a sign we may need to withdraw and signal to our loved ones that we need help. Which is what I have been doing since my mother died in January this year.
Fear can lead to us finding our courage. Guilt can motivate us to reach out to others. While being angry is natural, it can be expressed safely and can even be harnessed in a good way as energy for causes we care about. Often social change is fuelled by anger at the status quo. For instance, anger about the stigma around mental illness has led to more acceptance.
We appreciate the good times that follow even more by having experienced the bad. In fact, we would not appreciate sunnier times without living through the rainy ones. I love the way this idea is expressed in this poem by the 19th-century Scottish writer Charles Mackay.
“Oh, you tears,
I’m thankful that you run.
Though you trickle in the darkness,
You shall glitter in the sun.
The rainbow could not shine if the rain refused to fall;
And the eyes that cannot weep are the saddest eyes of all.”
Please extend a big hug from me to your mum on Mother’s Day, and if like me don’t have a mother with you, I’ll be thinking of you.
Thanks for reading,