Art, Human Condition, Philosophy

In Praise of Emotional Excess

Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1945

Recent celebrity suicides and a report chronicling the apparent increase in suicides in the United States over the course of the last few decades, plus a million other unsettling developments in our national dialog  are bringing fresh attention to the state of American mental health, or the lack thereof.  In May, Actor Wil Wheaton shared a public confessional on his chronic depression, calling it a mental illness.

This post is not meant to diminish or dismiss any of those things.  Everyone experiences the emotional weight of being human in their own way, within the scope of their personal bandwidth to handle it.  The turn of current events is simply a point of departure for me to muse on some other considerations of “emotional excess.”

I, too, ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Mood Swing, ranging by turn from a euphoric sense of achievement to a dismal sense of unworthiness, sometimes in the course of a day, although more often over a wider stretch of time. Sometimes there are obvious and expected triggers -some form of rejection or a failed project, a stalled place in life.  Sometimes there’s no discernible reason.

Between the  darkness and the light, I do my day work, and on the polar ends, I create art and I write, with each place on my emotional arc revealing new ideas, or fresh and different ways of seeing things and trying to express them. When I began allowing myself to feel very sad or very happy,  and to ride it out as opposed to trying to fight it or dial it back, while still difficult, the journey took on new dimensions.

In his book, On Balance, psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips includes a piece that Maria Popova of Brain Pickings calls ” one of the most rousingly and rewardingly unbalancing essays in the book, titled  “On Being Too Much for Ourselves.” In that essay, he notes that “it is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us.”

He goes on to say, “…one of the commonest complaints today is about feeling too much or feeling too little. I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important… My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. ”

Before anyone leaps to point out the obvious issues with the idea that “it is impossible to overreact,” Phillips qualifies this statement with a consideration of the fact that it is not our excessive emotions that are the issue, but that our fetishizing of youth compromises our ability to learn to grow into our excesses – to learn to embrace them as adults.

The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves,” writes Phillips.

In my earliest tween journal musings, I wrote that I always felt like a “raw nerve” – a feeling that has never really left me but which I’ve been able to temper over time, so I can be among others without being constantly overwhelmed – or I take myself out of that environment when that doesn’t work.

Because there’s a history of bipolar disorder in my family, I recognize the healthy limits of “emotional excess” and I try to keep an eye on myself, recruiting friends and family for reality checks as needed.  I’ve been tempted, at times, to get a better handle on the issue, but at the same time, I’ve found this “emotional excess” – a term I really like – to be a tool of sorts.

I could medicate myself into even-keeledness or I can revel in the glory of the minute detail of light and shadow that can fill me with extraordinary delight, or explore the depths of despair with the eye of a traveler writer, seeking new ways to describe or represent it.  This isn’t to suggest that what works for me will work for others, or that it even always works for me,  only that emotional excess, for me, is a rich and integral part of being human.  Life is short and I want it all, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the resonant and the dissonant, if only because of the life that is possible in all the spaces in between.