"Please, Don't Cry!"
How to be happy while feeling really sad and vice-versa.
Posted Feb 13, 2020
“Please, don’t cry.” “What can I do for you?” “Everything is just fine”
Despite our best intentions, sometimes these words can be harmful and charged with expectations.
Recently, a client told me how disoriented he felt when his partner asked him if there was anything she could do for him. Paraphrasing him a little, this is what he told me:
“When I am in those moments, I have no will of my own. My self is nowhere to be seen. I wish I could tell her what she can do. But there is no word I know I can share with her…What can she do for me? Please, just stay—I could say. But even that is made of words and I don’t have any words left for her in those moments.”
What can we do to help the people we love when they feel emotionally overwhelmed?
The Normative weight of positive emotions
The philosopher Saul Kripke (1980) noticed how certain definitions, especially those relating to kind terms, are often highly charged with normative expectations. For these words to mean something to anyone, they need to meet certain expectations, what McDowell would call the “normativeness of meaning” (1984, p. 336). The meaning of happiness, for example, often represents an ought that defines what is expected from individuals if they are to be recognized as happy. For a person to be happy, she needs to be smiling, be in a light mood, act funny, and so on.
The problem is this: if we attach normative expectations to happiness we do not give ourselves and others the space to know what happiness is for us in that moment. Happiness, in fact, can be sadness. Happiness can be fear. Happiness can be anxiety. William James (1842-1910) noticed that emotions are not ideals that exist inside of us as fixed entities. They are caught in a flux of feelings. My sadness can be happiness if I am letting my child go to college. My fear can be happiness if I am challenging my limits for my developmental growth. My anxiety can be happiness if, finally, I took the courage to declare my love for that girl I have always loved.
Vice versa, happiness is not happy if I do not let my child fulfill her vocation because I am afraid to lose her. Happiness is not happy if I freeze my life according to a picture that does not correspond to me anymore but merely matches social expectations. Happiness is not happy if I never try.
Hence sometimes, the expectations attached to positive emotions shrink our space of existence. Losing the normative expectations attached to happiness can make our life richer and can help the people we love to be free to feel whatever they need.
Be happy, be yourself
In Greek, "happiness" is a very rich word—eudaimonia. It literally means ‘eu-daimon,’ good inner self. You’re happy when capable of taking care of your soul and making it feel good.
For this reason, happiness might be fleeting or something difficult to achieve because it involves a great deal of introspection and self-understanding.
Living in a society in which you have to be happy in order to be integrated and accepted in a group (be it even the intimate group of your family) can make you experience exactly the opposite because it compels you to silence your soul in order to tune in to an external normative expectation that might be completely foreign to your inner soul.
Please, do not cry
So, when you tell yourself or somebody else to "toughen up" or to just not cry, you are implicitly inviting your interlocutor, or the person you love, to adhere to a certain normative expectation in which the meaning of happiness is frozen within the implied rule of smiling.
Feeling overwhelmed or inadequate in relation to one’s own or your loved one’s sadness is a very human feeling. Silencing it for education or social convention would mean to miss an opportunity to be truly happy.
‘What can I do for you?’ is a good way to start, but we cannot always expect an answer if the person is depressed or if they are in a state of desperation. Sometimes there’s really nothing to do but just be, and see what comes from that moment of being together in the sadness.
Surrender to Life
Leaving the meaning of happiness open to the messiness of life can be, sometimes, helpful. Often, we take for granted that the opposite of happiness is sadness and we force ourselves to avoid feeling sad in a coercive, unhealthy way. There are sad moments within happiness, avoiding them might make you feel worse. Maybe the opposite of happiness is simply boredom or numbness. If we want to help ourselves and others better turn down the expectations and accept what the messiness of life can offer us, surrendering to both the sadness and happiness within is healthy and can even lead to happiness.
The moral is that you don’t need to be happy for happiness. You need misery, heart brokenness, and disappointments in order to feel your soul, recover intimacy with it, and be happy.
McDowell, J. (1984). “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule”. Synthese, 58, 325-363
Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard: Harvard University Press
James, W. (1982). The Principles of Psychology. Dover Publication