By VN Narayanan
We live in a hostile world where all of us constantly feel the need to be loved, accepted, respected and admired. Our fears, allergies, hates, outbursts, withdrawals and evasions are manifestations of our need to protect ourselves from rejection and humiliation. They are not negative; they are our shields and warning systems
In the twilight years of the Soviet empire a joke was doing the rounds in Moscow about the state of the nation and the economy. Mikhail Gorbachev, addressing the Soviet people, says: ‘When I assumed office, our country and economy were at the brink of a precipice. Undaunted, we took a bold step forward and…’ That joke is as good an indicator of the consequences of mindless positive thinking as any that one can imagine.
Contrast that with Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s advice:
Jit jit umr gawai, hun tu haar fakira
Jeet da mool ad kasira, haar da mool heera
(You have expended your life winning victories. O fakir, now get defeated. The value of victory is half a grain; the value of defeat is that of a diamond.)
That is the power of negative reasoning at its most potent and wise. For centuries, humans have been fed on the legend of Midas as a person of great fortune and a symbol of success. He got a boon from the gods that whatever he touched should turn into gold. Enviable, generations of humans held him to be. I say, pitiable, not only because excess of gold is not worth having, but also because Midas was the most miserable human being imaginable. He could not eat a fruit because it turned to gold and he couldn’t touch his wife because she turned to gold.
Ever since humanity invented sin—God did not create sin, we did—and evolved moral codes of conduct and slapped divine sanctions on itself, civilizations have sought to divide all actions, words, thoughts and feelings into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. But different human societies have ensured that these terms are conjugational—’I am right, you are mistaken, he is wrong; we are good, you are in error, they are evil.’ While conflicts are continually maintained, raised to the boil and cooled off intermittently, the fiction is sustained that Truth is one and only the paths vary.
So, we are told by sincere sages as well as fake prophets down the ages, that such actions and feelings as love, affection, warmth, confidence, joy and optimism are positive and should be assiduously cultivated and pursued and their seeming obverse—hate, fear, guilt, anger, depression, gloominess and loneliness—are negative and need to be overcome if not avoided altogether. This labeling of good and bad, right and wrong and positive and negative is so deeply entrenched in the human psyche that every human being’s outlook on oneself, others and on life itself is shaped by it.
The perceived oppositeness of these labels ignores two vital facts. Anger, hate, guilt, depression, and so on are basic to all humans and are not character traits. And their obverse terms are not exactly their opposites. As Nobel laureate Elie Weisel says: ‘The opposite of love is not hatred but lack of caring.’ I have extended that wise statement to other areas. The opposite of democracy is not dictatorship but absence of accountability. The opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but arrogance. The opposite of Truth is not falsehood but righteous assertion of dogma. The opposite of faith is not reason but blind acceptance or rejection.
Thanks to the blurring of vital distinctions between opposites, men and women carry feelings of guilt, emotional upheavals, fear and hate as vehicles of bad feelings. And they feel bad about feeling bad; get angry at their own anger and depressed with their own depression. Instead of realizing that ‘positive’ feelings like love, affection, and hope also lead people to despair, depression, hate and anger, they get convinced of the negative impact of their negative feelings and get ‘trapped in a cycle of hating the very feelings that are there to guide them towards maturity’.
In a brilliant analysis of ‘the power of negative thinking’, a British doctor of psychology, Tony Humphreys, argues that there is no such thing as negative feeling, thought or action. What one perceives as negative emotion or feeling is actually a protective feeling or emotion. The negative label, he says, ‘blocks us from seeing their (guilt, hatred, depression, fear and despair) protective and deeper alerting functions’.
We live in a hostile world where all of us constantly feel the need to be loved, accepted, respected and admired. That need is under permanent threat from the emotional and social environment in which we live. Our fears, allergies, hates, outbursts, withdrawals and evasions are all manifestations of our need to protect ourselves from threats of rejection and humiliation. They are not negative; they are our shields and warning systems.
Dr Humphreys says that feelings of fear, guilt and depression are actually a ‘creative response to perceived threats to self-esteem and they guard against the possibility of further experience of hurt, abuse and humiliation’. They are also attempts to alert people to the need for self-correction and change and provide the impetus and energy for taking action needed to bring about change.
The point is, people in society are not uniformly endowed with strength, wealth and status. Different people respond differently to situations and the primary instinct is to guard oneself against rejection and humiliation. If you are socially and economically vulnerable, you take the protective mode but as a person of stature in society with high self-esteem, one would go beyond protection and respond to the alerting function of one’s feelings.
If only everyone starts looking at all others as composites of feelings, emotions, drives and thoughts, neither positive nor negative but as individual responses to moments and situations meant to protect oneself or draw lessons for the future, there would be less of cruelty and violence in the world. Low self-esteem is a trap laid by labels; it is up to us not to fall in it. Our emotions, thoughts and actions are part of our defense mechanism. They are not meant to debase or demean us unless we get convinced that we are negative.
Let us banish from our lives negative labels and live life positive.
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