(c) Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
***One joke I did not tell with the kids here is one I remember from Erma Bombeck – the famous humorist. She once said that when her kids were acting wild or out of sorts, she used a nice, safe playpen……And when they were finished……she climbed out!
***Sadly, that is how some adults deal with their children’s emotions or even their own – they wish they’d go away, they put on a happy face and they fail to deal with them. And that’s one reason why I chose to discuss the film ‘Inside Out’ in my message today.
***It was nominated for this year’s Best Animated movie. It wonderfully entertains people of all ages while offering insight into how our brains work and, more specifically, how emotions govern our actions and define who we are. The film does not dumb down the examination of emotions. Its writers worked closely with two of the foremost contemporary researchers into emotions – Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner. The result is one of the best films I’ve seen in its ability to poignantly inform and entertain viewers about our emotional selves. Take a look now at the film’s trailer, for a better understanding of what the film is about…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lDkegpnH30
***Experts on emotions indicate that they are good for us and should not be suppressed. They control an amazing amount of our thinking and actions – in ways that we are only dimly aware. The film delightfully shows how we see the world through a prism colored by our emotional reactions to it. We memorize and store information based not on simple facts, but on how we emotionally interpret an experience. It also pointedly directs viewers in how to balance emotions so that we can effectively channel them to be helpful instead of destructive.
***Indeed, the movie is a template for achieving a higher level of emotional intelligence or EQ – which is the ability to identify and manage emotions. The movie is targeted to youth but its message is just as resonant for adults. How can we better manage anger in ways that are not harmful? How we do control fear such that we embrace change? How do we employ sadness to serve and heal – without descending into depression? How can our rational minds lead us toward meaningful joy – the kind that is deep and lasting? These are age old spiritual questions to which we all seek answers.
***Over the past six February’s at the Gathering, and for one message last year at Northern Hills, I’ve looked at Oscar nominated films to find themes that inspire. I see these message series as a fun way to explore serious spiritual issues. Regarding the film ‘Inside Out’, people often pride themselves on their intellectual prowess and the knowledge they’ve acquired. Few people, however, recognize how essential emotional intelligence is for a healthy and others focused life.
***“Inside Out” imaginatively depicts the brain of an eleven year old girl named Riley. Having grown up in a small town in Minnesota, and raised by two attentive parents, Riley must suddenly deal with her family’s move to San Francisco, a new job for her dad, a new home, school, and classmates. As a girl whose default is to be happy, she soon struggles with the emotional challenges of the move. The film spends a lot of time showing the animator’s vision of Riley’s brain and the emotions that govern it. It depicts five key emotions as anthropomorphic characters – joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. While some psychologists believe we have six primary emotions – surprise being the sixth, many others believe we have only four. The other two – disgust and surprise – are extensions of anger and fear. For the dramatic purposes of this film, they depict five.
***I don’t want to describe too much of the movie In case you have not seen it. But a central theme in it is that Joy can be a controlling emotion only when it appropriately interacts with other emotions. In the movie, however, Joy believes her mission is to keep Riley happy and thus minimize or eliminate sadness, anger and fear. But that assumption is largely incorrect. All emotions have a role to play in life. This is an essential lesson to teach children – and adults. We can be sad or angry in healthy and appropriate ways – and still find a way to ultimately be joyful.
***I watched this film on my computer while I was in California these past weeks tending my mom and helping my family reach a decision about her future. I could not have watched a better film during that experience. It helped me better understand my emotions about moving my mom, who has Alzheimer’s, into a care home. It also gave me perspective on what is likely controlling her brain. For me, it was difficult not to focus on the tragedy of her disease – how it terribly diminishes a once vibrant woman and how that is affecting my family. How can I and my family feel appropriately sad, frustrated and even angry? Is it OK to feel those emotions? Does joy have any role in this drama?
***One scholarly article on Alzheimer’s I read helped me a lot. It said that with dementia, the frontal lobes of the brain that control intelligence and reasoning become clouded and ineffective. Unfortunately, however, the almond shaped amygdala area of the brain, located at the rear – near the spinal cord, is one of the last areas to be affected by dementia. The amygdala is considered a more primitive part of the brain in that it was the largest brain portion in early humans – and it still is for many primates. It regulates fear and anger which allows for survival by initiating the fight or flight reactions to danger. All of us feel the prompts of the amygdala but they can be regulated by our fontal lobes when we examine and filter perceived dangers. Are they real or imagined – and what is the most effective response to them?
***My mom can no longer control or rationally understand her amygdala feelings. Life for her, unless she is assured of basic safety, is full of irrational fears and delusions. People want to kidnap her, my father has abandoned her when he simply goes to the store, waking in the dark at night is terrifying, etc, etc. She is constantly confused, agitated, frustrated and even angry. Calming her is very difficult.
***Over these past weeks, I too noted my own amygdala responses to my mom’s situation. I got frustrated with how she sometimes acts. I was angry at the awful disease and I was, and am, profoundly sad at the figurative death of the mom I once knew.
***What the film helped me understand is that my emotions and those of my family are okay. They are not only normal, but important. I’ve had to practice what I often counsel others who grieve and mourn. It is good to feel bereavement at the loss of a loved one. It’s often helpful to be afraid of change, or feel the emptiness and loss of a death, romantic breakup or change of circumstances. It’s productive to be righteously angry at injustice. So too is it right to empathize with the pain of those who are sick or distressed. Too often, we try to suppress such emotions believing that sadness, fear or anger are mentally unhealthy emotions. We rationalize all the ways that we should instead be joyful. Riley’s brain, in the film, has her emotion named Joy remind the other emotions that the loss of Riley’s past friendships is simply a way for her to meet new friends. Don’t be sad or afraid, she tells them. Instead, be happy at the new opportunity!
***Ultimately, such rationalizations are defense mechanisms we tell ourselves because of another fear – that we will get stuck and be forever depressed, fearful or angry. Indeed, Riley’s parents in the film praise their daughter for always being happy and for being the source of joy in the family. Unable to process their own fears and sadness at the changes they face, they are shocked when their once happy child is sad and afraid. At one point, they angrily implore her not to feel them.
***What became more clear for me over the past few weeks is that my own sadness at my mom’s rapidly declining state of mind should not be rationalized away. I was trying to tell myself that moving her into a home is for the best. I reminded myself that she and my family will be happier and so I should not be sad. I used such thinking to try and banish unhappy thoughts. I was not allowing myself to feel sadness, fear and anger – or I rebuked myself when I did. I’m a smart guy, I told myself, I shouldn’t immerse myself in pain.
***But that’s a false mantra. It’s a common false narrative that many people tell themselves. Our default should always be happiness – we tend to believe. We must do our best to suppress the seemingly negative other emotions.
***What we intuitively understand but often forget, however, is the ironic truth that we cannot feel joy unless we have also felt and experienced sadness. We cannot mourn the loss of someone – and deeply feel the pain of that emotion, unless we’ve also had the joy of knowing them and feeling their love. My mom was usually one of my few cheerleaders. She was the one I called when I did well on a test, was made captain of my high school Model UN club, or became minister at the Gathering. I miss being able to share with her the joy I feel in my new Minister role here. She was the one who soothed me in my childhood fear of bullies. She was one who scolded my dad and a few others when they snickered once I came out eleven years ago. She was not a perfect mom. None are. But she always seemed to understand and love me in ways perhaps only moms are able. The security and contentment I felt from her has been invaluable. In an ironic way, it is the pain of seeing her as she is now that helps me remember and relive the past happiness she gave me. We cannot exult in the light of a morning dawn unless we’ve walked through a dark night of pain. Such dark times are awful and terrifying but they are also necessary. Indeed, the path to happiness is not only through our reasoning minds, to rationalize away pain, it is also, also!…….figuratively or literally…….to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
***I don’t intend that idea to be another way to rationalize away unhappy emotions. Fear, anger and sadness remain a part of the human brain because they serve a valuable purpose not only to survive danger, but also to enhance emotional intelligence. Much like we draw on creativity, imagination and knowledge to think, we draw on emotional memories to find real joy. To be emotionally intelligent is thus not to minimize supposedly negative emotions and outwardly only be happy. It is, instead, to fully feel each emotion but maintain them within healthy boundaries. In this way, our reasoning abilities, our frontal lobe portions of the brain, work in balance with the amygdala and its emotions of sadness, fear or anger. Doing so, we realize the benefits our emotions play in finding genuine contentment. Such is emotional intelligence and perhaps a reinforcement of my message in January that life must be lived in a grey zone balance. Emotions are not bad. Intelligence and reason are not always good. Exercised in tandem with each other, emotions AND rational thinking are both good.
***Spiritually, we know this to be true. Jesus wept at the death of a friend. He got angry at hypocrites and uncaring people. He trembled in fear at his impending execution and he shouted from the Cross at its injustice. And yet he was also a spokesman for good news – that the arrival of a realm of love and peace is within our reach. He did not deny his emotions. Instead, they were a vital part of his ministry.
***The Buddha likewise called us to be mindful of our emotions – to feel them, be aware of them and then gently allow them to pass through our minds. Emotions can be like birds who alight in a tree but soon fly away. In being mindful of our emotions but not worrying about them, we gain perception into our minds but let go of the ways we negatively express them – through verbal violence, greed, arrogance or depression. The goal is to be at peace with ourselves and with the world – and thus find empowerment to empathize with, serve and love others.
***And that is our mission as individuals and as a spiritual Community. We seek both head knowledge AND heart knowledge – greater cognitive intelligence and greater emotional intelligence.
As we move in a few minutes to the historic business of approving a merger between our two congregations, may we remember these truths. May we call on Unitarian Universalist ideals and use our minds to intelligently AND emotionally act in the high cause of a more just and loving world.
I wish you each much peace, joy and emotional intelligence!