On Friday, I had lunch with Mark, an old friend who has AIDS. In the 1990’s, for nearly a year, he lived face-to-face with death. His white blood cell (T4) count was near zero. He couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time.
In 1995, Mark’s friends and family even had a farewell party at his apartment. He sat in a chair and wished us all good-bye and good luck. It was sad, but also a happy appreciation of the good things Mark had brought into our lives.
Then scientists developed a new class of AIDS drugs called protease inhibitors, and Mark was one of the first to get them. He was saved. Although he had all kinds of physical symptoms from the disease and from the drugs, he struggled through. He is now in many ways better than he has been in 20 years.
(You know how hard I am on the drug industry. Well, AIDS is one case in which the researchers really got it right. Maybe I should give them a pass for a while. Or maybe not.)
At Friday’s lunch, I asked Mark how the near-death experience had changed him. He talked about not being afraid of death any more, appreciating each day as it comes, living on “a more even keel.”
Then he said something interesting. “I learned not to pay attention to my emotions. I learned that emotions aren’t real. They’re just waves in your mind. They can get in the way of doing what you need to do. So if feelings can help me get from one place to another, I use them. If they’re in the way, I just let them go.”
The Nature of Emotions
I was surprised to hear that. I tend to trust emotions more than thoughts. Emotions are more primal. They’re felt in the older parts of the brain. Where thoughts can be confused or just plain wrong, I thought emotions were more reliable. But Mark said no.
“Like when somebody says something that hurts, or hits me in the head or something, I’ll get angry,” he said. “I can decide what I want to do about it. But if I keep going back to that feeling and stay angry, I’ll just be stuck.”
I thought: This is so relevant to living with a chronic condition. Feelings of anger, grief, fear, and frustration can come up every day. What’s the best way to deal with them?
In my book The Art of Getting Well, I say we should put emotions to positive use. Anger motivates change. Fear tells us what we need to face up to. Grief is a natural reaction that needs to be expressed, and so on.
We could possibly block the painful emotions, but then we would probably block the good feelings as well. If you love someone, I thought, you are going to fear when they are in danger and grieve their loss when they’re gone. Without the painful feelings, you wouldn’t have the love.
What’s Your Attitude?
But I’m starting to think Mark is right. In meditation, you are taught that thoughts will come to you. You are supposed to just notice them and let them go, not get involved with them or resist them. Perhaps emotions are the same way. We should just notice them, perhaps try to understand what they are telling us, and then let them go.
This sounds easier said than done. Thoughts and emotions are habits, kind of like smoking. We keep going back to the same thoughts, especially negative ones, over and over. Emotions are the same way. I tend to get depressed easily these days by the world situation. I’ll come out of it by laughing or crying or exercising or doing something pleasurable. Then a few days later I find myself back there again. It’s hard to let go of.
What’s your take on the value of emotions? Do they play a big part in your life, or do you stay away from them as much as possible? How do you deal with them when they come up? Are you able to put them to positive use?
Our emotions make up a major of part of who we are. Please share your feelings about feelings by commenting here.