One Friday morning I heard a little boy crying on the bus. I also heard the driver say, “Do not cry, man. Are you a man or a plate of porridge?”
I don’t think I would have paid much attention to what was happening if my day had started well, but I empathized with that boy. I too was moody because I’d had to wake up early to go to my internship, and that week had been especially tiring and stressful. There were not many choices left, so I got out of bed and caught that bus anyway.
Most of us are taught to hide our emotions from the time we are children. Men cannot cry, cannot be soft like porridge. Men are trained to be that way starting in childhood, as I had just witnessed in the driver’s interaction with the crying boy.
Thankfully, we hear less and less the phrase “be a man” in the sense that men cannot show their emotions, but this message is still received by children in other ways, especially in typically masculine games. This pressure, initiated by society and reinforced by friends, makes boys repress feelings like sadness, shame, and frustration. This is a threat to their mental health and ability to connect with others, according to Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It.
It is not only men who can’t show their emotions; women also can’t express theirs. As more and more women pursue a career, they are learning to increasingly suppress their feelings. In an article in the Daily Mail, Yasmine Yaghmour explains that “there is still a stigmatized view of crying at work. Women are concerned that they will be perceived as weak.” Studies show that crying at work is acceptable, but Roslind Toynbee, a career expert, is emphatic when she says that it is better to hold back the tears: “When women cry it reinforces the stereotype that they are weak.”
My Struggle with Negative Emotions
Why did I choose to write only about negative emotions such as sadness or frustration when there are so many other emotions that make us feel good? Because the negative emotions are the ones that we learn to suppress and are also the ones that make us sick when we do not appropriately vent them.
Not long ago, I was depressed and sought a psychiatrist, not because I wanted to feel better, but because depression was disrupting my studies. I lost a year of study in college not because of failing to get good grades, but because of lack of attendance. Getting out of bed and facing my obligations was just too painful.
From studying psychology, I knew what depression is, what depression does to our body and brain, techniques to deal with depression, the source of my depression, etc., but all my knowledge did not make me feel stronger than other people or keep me away from emotional disease.
I still remember the morning when I walked into the psychiatrist’s office. After a brief greeting, he asked what made me seek his help. I tried to start an explanation, but I was interrupted by a flood of tears washing my face. A part of me was trying to come out into the open, a part that I always ignored until that very moment—the part that feels.
Suppressing and ignoring feelings are not healthy ways of dealing with our emotions. I can say that not only from studying depression, but from experiencing it.
Do Negative Emotions Have a Purpose?
As a creationist, I believe that all God has made in this world has a function. I do not think God would put anything in me if it were not necessary. For instance, it is hard not to sweat living in a tropical country, but the truth is that I hate sweating. Nonetheless, the ability to sweat is a blessing. If I could not sweat for any reason, it would be a problem. Sweat serves to balance the body temperature. If we were not able to sweat, the body temperature would rise, causing mineral loss. Depending on how much the body temperature rose, the proteins in our cells would burn, damaging our body tissues and organs and possibly causing death.
Similarly, emotions exist for a reason. They are adaptive responses of our body to changes in the environment. They help us focus our attention and impel us to action. As Henri Wallon says, emotions are also our first form of interaction with the world, our first language. It is because of emotions that we become cultural beings and start thinking logically.
Emotions and feelings are often taken as synonyms, but this is not correct. According to António Damásio, emotions are related to bodily changes and a set of actions arising from these changes, while feelings are our cognitive experience of our actions. For example, fear would be the emotion that emerges when you see a grizzly bear coming toward you. You would not even notice, but your heart would beat faster to send blood to your muscles so you could run as fast as you can, increasing the level of stress hormones so your awareness is heightened in this dangerous situation. The feeling would be the way your mind interprets what has just happened—you have felt fear.
Can you tell your heart not to beat faster after a scare? Is it easy for you not to feel sad after losing a loved one? Just as we have no control over the unpleasant circumstances that may surround us, we do not have much control over the emotions that emerge when something unpleasant happens.
Jesus was also made human like us; He was exposed to unpleasant situations and subject to emotions just like us. Jesus wept (John 11:35); He was angry and distressed (Mark 3:5); He grieved deeply at Gethsemane (Mark 14:34); He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled (John 11:33); He was a man of suffering and familiar with pain (Isa. 53:3).
It is not a sin to respond to the circumstances of life in a sinful world with negative emotions. The sin lies in what we do with them. What are the feelings that are being fed when something bad happens to us? Just to highlight, God expects nothing less than the control of our reason over our emotions. Negative emotions may make us believe that God will not listen to our prayers or has forgotten us. We may feel so bad that we think we should not seek Him because we’re feeling this way. But the truth is that our emotions are not a safe guide in our relationship with God.
Ellen White states:
To closely study your emotions and give way to your feelings is to entertain the evil guest of doubt, and by so doing you entangle yourself in perplexities of despair. You may inquire, “What shall I do under these terrible suggestions?” Expel them from the mind by looking at and contemplating the matchless depths of a Savior’s love. (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 474)
From Negative to Positive
David dealt with negative emotions by taking his situation to God. “Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God! For You have smitten all my enemies on the cheek; You have shattered the teeth of the wicked” was what he said in Psalm 3:7 (NASB). I have the feeling that he would have done the “smiting” and “shattering” to his enemies himself if he had not asked for God’s help!
Like David, we must recognize what we feel. It is not healthy to completely ignore our emotions and the feelings that arise in us. As we acknowledge our feelings, we can deliver them into the hands of God, who takes care of us and takes our sorrows in His hands. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, NIV). We can be assured that we can also cast the frustration, the sadness, the anger, or whatever feeling we are experiencing on Him too. God recognizes that emotions are an important part of us and knows that they will not simply vanish, as the world requires.
Ellen White advises:
If we educated our souls to have more faith, more love, greater patience, a more perfect trust in our heavenly Father, we would have more peace and happiness as we pass through the conflicts of this life. The Lord is not pleased to have us fret and worry ourselves out of the arms of Jesus. He is the only source of every grace, the fulfillment of every promise, the realization of every blessing. . . . Our pilgrimage would indeed be lonely were it not for Jesus. “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18), He says to us. Let us cherish His words, believe His promises, repeat them by day and meditate upon them in the night season, and be happy. (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 468)
Being happy sounds good to me!