By Vega Subramaniam
Pretty much all the time, the same event—a marriage, a funeral, a holiday celebration…an election…—is an occasion for both celebration and mourning—laden also with all the emotions in between and sideways and tangential and, for that matter, random.
I’ve been really struggling with my internal whiplash of mixed emotions. That’s been true my whole life, of course. But it’s taken on a whole new life since
November 7 December 14 January 5 January 6 January 20 today. I’m buried by the whiplash. It flattens me. The work my brain is doing to consolidate all the incoming! is too much.
The very real highs of “Biden/Harris!” “First Black/South Asian (Tamilian!)/Woman Vice President!” “Vaccine!” “Electoral College!” “Georgia!” are yoked to the equally real lows of “Ever-Increasing Pandemic Deaths!” “Billionaire-Supported Misogynist Islamophobic Anti-Semitic Nativists!” “Violent White Supremacist Insurrectionists Full-Throatedly Supported By Half The Country And Also Most Of The Elected Representatives And, Well, At Least A Few Of The Senators! All Of Whom Were There In The Room Where It Happened! And Had A Momentary Epiphany! Followed Immediately By That Sweet, Sweet Billionaire-Supported White Supremacist Collective Amnesia!”
And since when should “Biden/Harris!” be a “high“?! Pfft. I am robbed of my god-given entitlement to rail against the neoliberal capitalist state—no no no, rather, I am required to full-throatedly cheer on a Biden/Harris administration, all the cabinet secretary appointments, the judicial nominees, the newly appointed first out gay Secretary (of Transportation) Mayor Pete, the plaintive pleas for unity and bipartisanship (OK, I guess I’m allowed to criticize that).
I mean, what?!?!
Where was I. Right: mixed emotions.
If you’re at all like me (to be clear: this is not something I’m wishing on you), there are times when it feels like too much to hold all of the contradictions all at once. And yet, I am quite aware that we’re in a constant state of holding complex emotions, all at once. Weddings both joyous yet stressful and also unattended by beloved family members; graduation ceremonies bittersweet with accomplishments and farewells; funerals generating moments of hilarity and joy. We live within all of this all the time.
So what do we do with that? How do we live with that? How do we thrive with that?
You know what’s funny? Here’s what’s funny. Having mixed emotions, as it turns out, is not a bad thing. On the contrary, as it turns out, it may well be a good thing. It appears that we can thank our mixed emotions for making us better, stronger, more resilient human beings.
For example. when we are able to evoke positive feelings during a stressful event, it makes us more resilient. It can happen quite naturally, without us having to intentionally work at it—”phew, bad accident, but thank goodness we’re all OK. Just a couple dents on the car. That sucks, and I’m freaking out a bit right now, and my heart rate’s through the roof, but at least we’re all OK.” It’s also helpful when there’s more intentionality—say, during a frightening medical diagnosis, loss of a job, divorce. Not that all we need to do is have a positive attitude and all will be well. But noticing, acknowledging, and embracing the multiple emotions we feel at those times seemingly accelerates our ability to stay afloat. And staying afloat is a Good Thing.
It fill us with a sense of purpose. There’s a way that having both unpleasant/negative and pleasant/positive emotions signals a need to pause to resolve conflicting goals, or pause to resolve conflicting values, and/or pause to say farewell to what was and welcome what will be. It’s an intentional entry into a transition.
It improves our psychological wellbeing. There’s seemingly something about our experiencing both happiness and sadness at the same time that has a positive psychological impact over time: “…mixed emotional experience may have a distinct prospective potency; its association with psychological well-being unfolds over time…while the concurrent experience of happiness and sadness in the face of adversity might not provide immediate benefit, it may signal enhancements in psychological well-being in the near future.” Which is to say, our mixed emotions today help our mental wellbeing over time.
At this moment, I am feeling all the “mixed emotions” feelings in a different, keener, way. The anxious anticipation I felt leading up to January 20, and the deep breaths of relief I took at 12:01 that day, stay with me even now. And yet, simultaneously, I am experiencing the continued—even, inconceivably—increased trifecta of anxiety-rage-terror. It’s a jarring juxtaposition.
Given all of that, it is an extraordinary comfort to embrace our whiplash-inducing mixed motions, our vehicle to our future resilience and wellbeing.