“The Joys of Sorrows”

“The Joys of Sorrows”
A Sermon by Josh Leach
Delivered on February 19, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford


Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to
which we intimately consent.

– William James


Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.

– “Sadness,” Inside Out (2015)



I had not yet seen the 2015 Disney-Pixar film Inside Out when Megan referenced it in a sermon last year, but as soon as I did, this past summer, I realized that it was one of the most totally preach-able movies I had ever seen. It is one of those ingenious animated films that seem to come out every ten years or so, which, while ostensibly marketed to children, somehow manage to explain all the rest of us to ourselves as well. There was The Lion King. There was Toy Story. And now there’s this. Once I got ahold of the movie, I found it coming up in conversations with friends and family on subjects as diverse as the effects of birth order, to electoral politics. These conversations even led my sister and me to develop a so far totally comprehensive categorization of everyone we knew, based on the psychological insights of the movie.

Inside Out is set inside the mind of a twelve-year old girl, and the story is acted out through characters personifying the five major emotions of joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness.

One of the minor details of the film that particularly caught the attention of my sister and me, is that each human character in the film is not only depicted as having all five of these emotions inside their head, but that each of them has one dominant emotion in the driver’s seat, which to some extent keeps the others in line. Riley, the protagonist, is portrayed as a primarily joy-based individual. While disgust, fear, anger, and sadness all play a role in her emotional psychology – Joy remains the captain of the ship that more or less steers her overall personality. But is not so for all the human characters. When we see inside the mind of Riley’s father, for instance, it is anger that is sitting at the control panel, and barking orders to the rest of the crew. In the case of her mother, the dominant emotion is sadness. It doesn’t mean in any case that the other emotions aren’t there– just that they aren’t the boss.

After pointing this out to my sister, it didn’t take us long to decide that this simple image had managed to explain, in one fell swoop, just about every person we had ever met, including ourselves. Goodbye, Myers-Briggs. So long, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. We quickly convinced ourselves that we – or rather – the movie, with us as its interpreters – had stumbled upon the key to the inner workers of all human beings. It turns out that people are actually much simpler to un-riddle than all the great thinkers of the ages had imagined. Each of us has one of five emotions in the driver’s seat, and it informs the texture of all our interactions and reactions.

“I, for instance, am a Joy-based person,” said my sister, with all the infuriating promptness and confidence that revealed the truth of the diagnosis. Isn’t she worried that she could be wrong? I thought, revealing immediately that whatever I was, I was not a Joy-based person. There followed an exhaustive inventory of every other person of significance in our lives, after which we moved on to fictional characters and historical personages. My sister is a biology teacher, so categorizing things comes easily to her. Abraham Lincoln and Batman are both sadness-based people, it may interest you to learn; while Draco Malfoy and the Emperor Palpatine are both organized primarily around the emotion of disgust. We also decided quickly enough that our dad was Joy-based and our mom was fear-based. The only case we were stumped on, to be honest, was me.

I knew beyond any doubt that Joy was not in the driver’s seat of my emotional starship. That much at least was clear. Joy is a fairly minor and episodic feature of my inner life. If I am pressed to describe positive experiences in my typical week, I would be more apt to use words like “relief,” or “it could have been worse,” or “it was interesting,” or “it was worthwhile.” Joy, on the rare occasions when it comes, is a somewhat suspect emotion to me. It feels somehow ill-gotten, or at the very least precarious. So, “I guess I must be sadness-based,” I told my sister.

When, in a later conversation, we explained all this to our parents, my Dad’s first response was, “You’re not a sadness-based person,” and my Mom’s was to become quietly anxious and probing. They thereby confirmed their own diagnoses as joy-based and fear-based people, respectively.

My parents’ reactions, however, didn’t shed much light of whatever it was that I might be. Maybe I wasn’t sadness-based. I knew I wasn’t disgust-based. That is just not an emotion I experience particularly often. But anger, fear, and sadness sometimes feel like fairly equal players in my internal closet drama.

The mystery was finally solved when I presented all of our theorizing to my best friend from Divinity School – the same friend with whom I first discussed the parallels between Mary Poppins and the ministry. Before I could even lay out in sufficiently agonizing detail the question of what sort of person I might be, he already had me pegged. “You’re anger-based,” he said. “What!!” I roared, the fury instantly kindled within me. “No! Well – I mean, only with you!” I retorted.

Such is the plight of the anger-based person. We out ourselves in the very act of denial. The same thing happened with my brother-in-law, when my sister assured him that he, too, was anger-based.

“Not that that’s a bad thing,” my sister would quickly add. This was also the point we tried to get across to our mom, when she started worrying over the idea that one of her children might not be joy-based. Being joy-based is a perfectly fine thing and all, I’m sure, but according to the tenets of the theory, it is not the only – or even the best – way to be. “Having a single dominant emotion doesn’t mean it’s the only one you have,” my sister would explain. “It just means it’s the first one you default to when you are confronted with new information.” Moreover, none of the five emotions is bad in itself. Each one plays a necessary role in our mental functioning. To lean primarily toward one over the others consequently brings with it a distinctive set of skills, as well as a characteristic set of challenges.

Being joy-based, it turns out, is actually not all sunshine and rainbows. Both my sister and my Div school friend, being joy-based people, default to happiness, and the assumption that everything will turn out alright in the end. For this very reason, they are two of the most desperately procrastination-prone people I know. Deadlines have no meaning to them, because nothing for them can ever really go wrong. The idea does not register with them that – for instance – they might in fact not be able to write an entire sermon in fifteen minutes in a Starbucks at 9 AM the morning of the service when it is to be preached. And when, as inevitably happens in the course of a human life, things don’t quite work out, it is often harder for joy-based people to process what has happened. None of this is my observation, but the product of my sister’s own self-reflection. “It’s always been especially hard for me to not succeed at something,” she said. “Because I don’t know what to do with that. I always assume I will be the best, so if I’m not – I don’t take it well.”

By the same token, I wasn’t particularly happy to hear myself described as an anger-based person, but once I had worked past my angry default response to the idea, I could see that there was an upside to it. Anger holds a place in our emotional repertoire because it is a kind of justice-monitor, closely attuned to the social environment around it, and always watching out for breaches of fairness in the actions of others. If someone is getting more or less than others, more or less than their fair share, it is anger that sounds the internal alert system, saying “Stop! That’s not right!”

Observing my interactions with my family members as an adult, and recently going through the emotionally and physically exhausting process of transcribing our old home videos onto digital files, I can see that the roots my sister’s and my joy- and anger-based dispositions respectively lie deep in our family system. My sister is the older sibling, and was from the moment I came into the world quite used to being in charge. To this day, if we are in the same room together and my sister says “I’m thirsty” – I will often find myself unconsciously leaping to my feet and going to fill a glass of water for her.

To my sister, the world seemed from the start to be a place where one mostly got one’s way – within reason. To me, the world seemed like a place full of people bigger than oneself, where status is inherently precarious, and where the strong will always to hold court over the weak, unless there is a pretty persistent stream of advocacy coming from the latter. Anger always seemed to me like a pretty critical emotion to have.

The other side of the paradox of it, though, is that my sister and I have always enjoyed an unusually close relationship. We still develop our theories about human personality together, after all. Indeed, many of my closest friendships in life have been with people who are unmistakably joy-based – (though I have also, to be sure, had a few explosive companionships with my fellow angry people as well). There seems to be a certain amount of attraction of opposites going on.

My sister’s and my going theory is that anger-based people make good companions for joy-based people in part because they both share a sense of humor. Joyful people appreciate humor because it is an expression of joy. Anger-based people like to supply humor, because humor is so often a form of sublimated outrage. Humor is a sort of defensive maneuver against the heartaches of the world and against the limitations of oneself. Its magic is that it allows one – by a kind of emotional jiu-jitsu – to turn pain into pleasure. It smelts anger into joy, so the joyful share in it too.

There is really no emotion known to the human personality that does not serve some essential function in the preservation of the self and the community. To be dominated by one emotion more than another is simply to be another eccentric person, whose distinctive virtues are the inevitable product of their vices. It is, in short, simply to be a human being.

And we really do need all kinds to make the world. If there were not sadness-based people out there, there would be no one around for the long hours of grief when what is needed is something more than just a Promethean railing against the injustice of the universe, but a quiet tear and embrace. If the world did not have fear-based people in it, no one would have ever gotten our family packed and at the airport in time for any travel; no one would have kept anyone’s finances in order; people might not even remember to bathe and wash their hands. Disgust-based people are perhaps a little more difficult for me to relate to, but one does need them as well. If someone out there didn’t preserve a certain sense of social norms and propriety for its own sake, and remind the rest of us that certain things are just not done, then the social order would surely collapse. The joy-based people would let it all go up in smoke, and be interested in the spectacle; while the anger-based people would have no place to channel their outrage, if there was no longer any oppressive hierarchy of values telling them that yes, sometimes, you do have to wear a tie.

The problems in life do not come from the mere fact of having negative, non-joyful emotions. We would all be walking disaster areas, in fact, without them, with no means of anticipating danger, no sense of right or wrong, no understanding of social mores, and no deep empathy for the sufferings of others. Our negative emotions save our lives and our relationships every day, which is why we should treasure and cherish them, even though they are bitter. We must say, like the creature in Stephen Crane’s poem, that we accept our heart because it is bitter, and because it is our heart.

The problem comes when we are so exclusively dominated by a single emotion that we are incapable of any of the other five. With all due respect to Master Yoda’s oft-quoted dictum that fear leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side, I would have to say that just about any emotion will lead to the Dark Side, if it is the sum total of one’s emotional range. An excess of joy leads many a contented and successful person to forget that suffering and injustice are real things in this world. That seems like a path to the dark side to me, because it stifles empathy.

Our current president offers us an astonishing example of an emotionally lopsided person, but I don’t think his primary emotion is fear or anger. I say this not only because, as an anger-based person myself, I am hoping to avoid the comparison, but because I genuinely think that Donald Trump’s chief emotion is disgust. And disgust can be a particularly dangerous emotion, when it is not tempered by compassion, sorrow, or a sense of indignation. It is an emotion that leads one to want to cast out, to push away, to exile.

As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in a psychological profile of the president published in the Atlantic last June:

“Trump appeals to an ancient fear of contagion, which analogizes out-groups to parasites, poisons, and other impurities. In this regard, it is perhaps no psychological accident that Trump displays a phobia of germs, and seems repulsed by bodily fluids. […] he repeatedly characterized Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate as “disgusting.” Disgust is a primal response to impurity. On a daily basis, Trump seems to experience more disgust, or at least to say he does, than most people do.”

An exclusively disgust-based orientation to life seems to lend itself to something resembling fascism. But to resist a fascist drift in society, joy is not enough of a counter-ballast. Joy, left to its own devices, cannot perceive the worst of what is coming; nor heed the cries of the victims. Joy, if it doesn’t have anger, fear, sadness and disgust pitching in along the way, can be a heartless emotion.

I was thinking of all this in part because of another conversation I had relatively recently about the movie Inside Out. This was also with my joy-based divinity school friend. I was in the midst of a rant – this one on the timeless theme of how much better things were in my day. “When I was growing up,” I said, “we called it ‘Joys and Sorrows’ every Sunday. Then, at some point around the year 2000, it suddenly switched. It became ‘Joys and Concerns.’ Whatever happened to Joys and Sorrows?”

My friend offered an Inside Out-based interpretation of this linguistic shift. “Maybe,” he said, “it reflects that there are more emotions than either joy or sorrow. Concern is a more expansive term.”
“Well, why then did we expand the sorrow part of it, but not the joy?” I replied.
He had a good answer to that: “Because joy is the only positive emotion, whereas there are four negative ones.”

I sort of like this idea. I like the thought that we are lighting candles not only of joy and sorrow each Sunday, but also candles of anger. Candles of fear. Maybe even candles of disgust. Those emotions need candles too.

I can’t quite shake the feeling, however, that the real reason why we abandoned the phrase “Joys and Sorrows” was not that we wanted to make room for other kinds of candles, but out of an excess of politeness. “Sorrow” as a word sounds to many of us a bit dramatic and overdrawn. “Concern” is a more sensible sort of word. A concern is something one has over a lunch date that conflicts with a meeting. A “sorrow” is a more embarrassing thing, that many of us wouldn’t want to own up to in a culture that so prizes success.

Yet it is hard for me to look at the world around us and say, with honesty, that life is not in fact full of sorrow. As full of sorrow as it is of joy. To confess this to ourselves is not easy. It strikes me too as a dangerous thought. But denying the reality of our negative emotions does not make them disappear. If anything, it makes them more insistent.

In one of the first sermons I preached from this chancel, at the start of my internship, I spoke about my struggles with anxiety, including with a fear of flying that had kept me grounded for the last several years. Since that time, circumstances arose that made it essential that I figure out how to overcome that fear and actually get on a plane, not least of which was a job at the UUSC that requires some occasional airline travel.

In trying to coach myself into boarding a plane, it was easy to slip into despondency. I couldn’t possibly do it, I told myself. Heck, I couldn’t even stand to be on a subway car for more than a few stops. Well maybe I could do it, I thought, but only if I took some Xanex, or only if I drank a glass or wine, or if I closed my eyes the whole way, or otherwise dulled my senses.

The breakthrough, however, came for me from the literature I started reading on exposure therapy. Because it told me to do exactly the opposite of all the things that I had been telling myself to do in order to prepare for the flight. Instead of trying to manage the anxiety, it said, I needed to embrace it. Instead of forcing my eyes shut, I needed to hold them open. I needed to let the anxiety wash over and through me, and not try to fight it, because only when I let myself experience it fully would I realize that I could survive it – maybe even that it was not so bad.

I’m not putting this forward at all as a solution that would work for everyone. But for whatever reason, it was advice that came to me at the right time in my life, when I was ready to hear it, and when I most needed to hear it. It reminded me of a phrase from the novel The Way of All Flesh that has served as a kind of talisman to me ever since I read it. By the time we get older, says the author, “we have so long found life to be an affair of being rather frightened than hurt […]that we […] chance [the remainder of it] without much misgiving.”

For years, I had thought that the solution to my anxiety was to be found in joy – or at least, in relief from anxiety. It turns out it was not. The solution was to be found in accepting a certain amount of fear, a certain element of unease, and finding that after all, I did have the strength to live with it.

As the great and greatly-missed Carrie Fisher once described her struggles with alcoholism, it was one of the greatest insights of her life when someone told her at an AA meeting that she “didn’t have to like going to [the AA meetings], [she] just had to go to them.” “Well this was a revelation to me,” Fisher writes in her memoirs. “I thought I had to like everything I did. […] But if what this person told me were true, then I didn’t have to actually be comfortable all the time. If I could, in fact, learn to experience a quota of discomfort, it would be awesome news. [That meant I could exercise every day, and write, and otherwise be responsible.]”

The truth that we can’t ever entirely escape from the negative emotions in life is probably one that only relatively privileged people are likely to forget. Relatively privileged people like Carrie Fisher. Like myself. Like many of us here. This is not because privileged people do not experience suffering. They – we – suffer I am sure as much as most other mortals, including from the fear that perhaps they don’t have a right to be suffering. But it is, perhaps, easier, for the privileged to entertain the illusion that they can escape all pain, and maybe even mortality itself.

Yet, far from defanging the negative emotions in our lives, this illusion makes them all the more powerful. We are most afraid of fear when we are trying to avoid it, and are not willing to look at it directly. We are most bitterly enraged when we are trying to pretend to others and ourselves that we never get angry.

For historical moments like the present, when the world is particularly full of suffering, of injustice, of fear and uncertainty, we are not going to get far by pretending that life is all joy, and no sorrow. It is not. But we may find that, when we face the evils of the world squarely – when we open ourselves to danger and live in the face of uncertainty – we will find that we can endure it. And maybe even defeat it. Our current president, for one, is only truly powerful so long as people try not to think about what he is doing, or to whom he is doing it. Confronted directly, Trump is an emotionally pint-sized bully if ever there was one, who is likely to give up under sustained opposition.

To do, this, however, will require a willingness to live in the close company of discomfort. It will mean living according to the words of the great community organizer Saul Alinsky, who once wrote: “Life is an adventure of passion, risk, danger, laughter, beauty, love, a burning passion to go with the action to see what it is all about, to search for a pattern of meaning, to burn one’s bridges because one is never going back anyways.”

It is an attitude to life that UU theologian Sharon Welch calls the “feminist ethic of risk.” “Within an ethic of risk,” she writes, “actions begin with the recognition that far too much has been lost and there are no clear means of restitution. […] One of [its] most painful aspects […] is knowing in one’s mind and in one’s heart that ‘it’s much […] too late,’ and continuing to mourn this loss, continuing to rage against the innumerable onslaughts against life. [Yet i]nseparable from this grief and rage is a profound, wrenching, far-from-sentimental affirmation of the beauty and wonder […] of human life.”

Our negative emotions are not a curse to be resented. They are a route into some of the deepest and richest of life’s experiences. When they have the capacity to hurt us is when they are unheeded, or ignored, or wished away by panaceas. To quote the words of Captain Kirk in the unfairly maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, “Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves.”

Please join me in our final hymn, “For All That is Our Lives”