Sunday, December 30, 2012

Are emotions worth it?

I recently picked up a book I’d never heard of before by an author I wasn’t familiar with just to have something to read.  The book was “Forbidden” by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee.  I definitely didn’t go into it expecting any profound insights; I just wanted to be entertained. 

The book takes place in a distant future in which all human emotions except for fear have been selectively eradicated from the human genome.  Fear was left intact because it was considered the “only emotion necessary for survival.”  I’ll agree with this in premise; fear is definitely necessary for survival.  I remember reading about a woman who sustained a head injury in an accident that rendered her unable to experience fear.  As a result, she frequently found herself in dangerous situations.  She’d been attacked and robbed several times.  Her doctors were concerned for her safety.  Without a mechanism to warn her she was in danger, she was unable to differentiate between what was safe and what wasn’t.

On the other hand, too much fear can be debilitating.  I see a lot of patients who are plagued with anxiety.  They see danger or the potential for danger everywhere, even in places that are perfectly safe.  Often, they are completely unable to relax.  They live in a constant state of alertness; they are always on guard.  Many of them avoid going to places where large groups of people gather; they stay away from malls, popular restaurants, concerts, PTA meetings, parties, and they plan their trips to Wal-Mart in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep.  (This seems a bit backwards to me; aren’t you more likely to encounter a criminal at one or two in the morning than in the middle of the day?  I don’t know). 

In addition to thinking about fear, the book got me thinking about human emotion and what it would be like to live without them.  There are a few characters in the book whose abilities to experience emotions are restored after drinking a serum.  The main character wavers between embracing and cursing his newfound emotional palette.  He is initially exhilarated by his first taste of love.  He realizes that the love he and his mother felt for one another was merely was hollow and motivated by fear.  His mother is killed by people searching for the serum.  He grieves – really grieves – for the first time in his life.  He grieves for the loss of his mother, but also for the fact that he only gained the ability to really love her after she died. 

He sets out with his childhood (female) friend to discover how and why all humanity is bereft of all emotion except fear.  When he sees her for the first time after drinking the emotion-restoring serum, he realizes that he is in love with her.  He wonders why he never realized this before.  (Probably because he was incapable of love before).  He is intoxicated and invigorated by his love.  He sees that it gives his life meaning but also that he is willing to die for it, if need be.

And then the love of his life is killed by their enemies before his very eyes.  He is devastated.  He curses love.  He wants to die.  Life has lost all meaning for him.  He begins to think that maybe humanity is better off without emotions. 
Here he captures a fundamental truth about human emotion: with great joy comes great sorrow.  With great pleasure comes great pain.  There is no happiness without sadness, no love without loss, no hope without disappointment. 

This book lays out a very poignant argument for embracing all emotional experience, even those that are painful.  In many ways, this is the very thing I attempt to convey to my patients.  Sure, you can cut yourself off from your emotions to avoid feeling sad, insecure, or anxious, but at what cost?  Is it worth the loss of joy, happiness, pleasure, and love?  You can’t just cut out “bad” emotions; when you cut yourself off from your feelings, you sever ties with all of them, both good and bad. 

Is it worth it?


  1. You can't really cut off emotions, but you can be aware of them when you are caught up in them. Awareness is the first step, and then comes knowledge that they just as impermanent as all of life.
    Also some cultures, like Thailand frown upon and teach from birth not to visibly show emotions in public. I think American culture start it all by running up to a baby who has fallen, and encourage them to cry out the saying poor baby....and that starts the ball rolling.

  2. I disagree with Was Once. Many people cut off their emotions. They stuff them down with food, use drugs or alcohol to run from them, or just become numb. In addition, there is a difference between overreacting when your child falls (and then they overreact), and letting them express their hurt when they are truly hurt.


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