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I’ve been reading a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan. It’s pretty cool, because it validates a lot of my own synthesis of the things I’ve learned from experience and study. Humans, especially modern American humans, have a tendency to run away from emotional pain. Back in the day, when our culture was less secular, we rationalized pain by saying that God was punishing us for our sins. Nowadays, we pathologize it and claim that not only are we suffering because we’ve done something wrong (not eaten right, not exercised enough, not prayed to the right God), but that suffering itself is dangerous to our health and should be eradicated. Newsflash, people, suffering is unavoidable. Also, life is terminal. Not happy facts, but facts nonetheless.

Greenspan (and the Buddah) believe that accepting suffering is the path to greater awareness, and a more fulfilling, awake, meaningful life. Greenspan thinks we’re medicating ourselves into numbness and through avoiding our own pain, we blind ourselves to that of others resulting in things like emotional and physical violence.

I tend to concur. When I’m feeling scared or upset, I want to fix or eradicate it somehow. I often blame myself for suffering and try to find some way I caused it. This means that I’ve absorbed the idea that I can somehow prevent myself from suffering (that there was something I should have done differently), and I hurt because I’ve made a mistake. This seems pretty pointless, as a good portion of the time we don’t cause our own suffering. Lots and lots of things that cause us to suffer that are unavoidable. I think that the idea of personal responsibility and personal power is great for helping you focus on your goals, but it’s fairly shit for dealing with suffering. Suffering is a fact, and it doesn’t matter if you brought it on yourself, your neighbor brought it on you, or it was an earthquake. All suffering deserves compassion, and I think that at least some of the people who espouse personal responsibility in this way (Stephen Covey, I’m talking to you) do so to not only avoid their own pain, but to inure themselves from the pain of others.

It’s not that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from our mistakes. I just think that in the moment that we experience emotional pain who or what is to blame is not so relevant, and the search for the source is a way we avoid the experience. After the storm has passed, reflection is a good idea and helps give meaning to our suffering and allows us to feel compassion for others. But in that moment, I think the best thing to do is actually check out that storm – is it rainy with sorrow, or full of jarring, bright, scary lightening? Not all pain feels the same, I feel fear in my stomach sometimes, and grief more in my back. Greenspan talks about the value of checking in with the body when we feel emotional pain and letting ourselves experience it rather than fight it. It’s tricky, but when I have managed to do so, I’ve generally come out the other end a little wiser and much calmer.

While this may seem a bit of a jump, I think the topic actually relates closely to leadership and ethics. Leaders have responsibility to those who follow them, whether it’s a transactional relationship (like a job), or a transformational relationship (like a priest or teacher). If a leader has no relationship to their own suffering, then the organization they lead can become a reflection of that inner disconnect.

In modern companies, fear is often viewed as an undiscussable and taboo emotion. To show fear is to admit weakness, and in our patriarchal organizations weakness is not tolerated. So the leader who not only hides their fear from others, but also from themselves, has no little incentive to experience compassion for the followers who feel fear, trepidation, or insecurity when facing a challenge. A culture then emerges where fear is banished from what is espoused, creating a powerful undertow that erodes at the morale, relatedness, and development of employees, and damages the organization as a whole. I believe that in this way unsurfaced and undiscussable emotions create entropy that organizations have tremendous difficulty diagnosing, let alone overcoming.