It took me a long time to fall asleep the other night and I knew exactly why. I was spinning scenarios in my head of conversations that hadn’t occurred but could occur (although in daylight, it seems far more likely that they would not occur) and how I would feel should that come to pass. I could have listed a variety of negative emotions to describe my mental state that night, including disappointed, frustrated, or sad, but the emotion I kept returning to was fear.
And I realized that the reason I was afraid, the reason I was experiencing the negative emotions of fear, disappointment, frustration, and sadness, was because I had run into something that mattered.
And I took comfort in this thought because we are not bothered by things that don’t matter to us. We do not lie awake at night overthinking, mulling over, fretting about what is meaningless. Rather, we find ourselves troubled precisely because we care. If we didn’t, there would be nothing to think about. Coming to this realization calmed me enough that I fell asleep.
I’d be more bothered, I think, if the thoughts had floated into my mind without my noticing. That would mean there was no depth, no substance, no weight to any of it. And while I don’t need to lie awake to know that something matters to me, while I have practiced enough meditation to know how to recognize a thought and its sensations and then (still with a good deal of effort) set it to rest, the experience was nevertheless a nice affirmation that I haven’t lost track of what I would like my world to hold.
I don’t want to say that experiencing negative emotions is a positive thing, and I don’t want to dismiss the persistent sadness and hopelessness that characterize depression, for example. However, I do want to reframe what it might mean, for instance, to experience stress before an exam or job interview, to deeply miss someone, to feel an ache because a chapter of our lives has ended. Feeling this way means that something important is at stake or has been part of our experience. Life without emotional valence would be hollow indeed.
If the world were nothing but sunshine, I wonder if we’d stop seeing it after a while. And if it were only dark clouds, perhaps we’d stop looking for that break of sunshine. We need the whole spectrum, I think, to appreciate what it is that we have before us and what it is that matters to us. It’s not pleasant to lie awake and ruminate, but I’d gladly take the rumination over not having cared deeply at all.