From the time we are really little, we notice how certain feelings make us miserable and we think about how we would like to avoid them. That’s the reason behind why we come up with simple ways to avoid those little inconveniences. If, because of a lack of sleep, I find myself irritated, that’s enough for me to realize that I simply need to rest to be able to see things in a different light. If I’m bored, I’ll hang out with my friends or look for something to do. If I’m scared of something, I can consider if the thing I’m scared of is a really a threat to me or not and then either laugh about it or distract myself with something else to see if it goes away.
However, those strategies have their limitations when it comes to more complex feelings, feelings deeply rooted in my life. Sometimes, the solution requires that we get to the root of what’s negatively affecting me and change it. Other times, that won’t be possible because things happen that I can’t avoid. When this occurs, there’s nothing like praying the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Sometimes there are things that could change, but we don’t want to face them. This can happen whether or not we are fully aware of it. We ignore problems or refuse to face them and distract ourselves by taking refuge in other things. When taken to an extreme, this can lead to alcohol, gambling, or drug problems. They are ways of escaping that we think will better our situation and make us feel better, but in reality changes nothing. Instead of accepting what’s happening, we try to escape, and end up on the wrong path.
But it’s important to realize that the things that happen to us aren’t the cause of our unhappiness; rather, it’s how we react to them.
Our feelings form part of our character. The pessimist or cowardly person usually doesn’t have a lot of strength to face what life brings, while the optimist and decisive person is able to overcome and deal with the difficulties that life brings. An aggressive person can ruin their family life or the environment in their workplace with their rage.
Someone might think, “Of course everyone would like to be an optimist, but it’s not easy.” And that’s exactly right. It’s not easy but it’s certainly worth the fight. Everyone would like to be optimistic and joyful rather than sad. Everyone would like to live in peace and without stress or depression. Everyone prefers to love rather than hate. The sad thing is that when we reach the age of adulthood, many of us find that we aren’t who we would like to be. We have a way of acting that is almost natural to us and that resists change because it’s already deeply rooted. That’s why it’s so important to work on our character as soon as possible and also learn to control and educate our feelings. This is fundamental if we want to live a happy life.
As human persons, we naturally tend to take refuge in and look for that which seems to be less difficult. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be. That’s why we shouldn’t insist on remaining in our own “comfort zone:” preferring to be alone because we feel uncomfortable around others, not wanting to correct others when we know we should, never making an effort to speak in public because it’s too hard... Even though we might find a refuge in our own “comfort zone,” we must fight against it if we desire true happiness. This will naturally require a long-term effort but it is well worth it. In the end, those things which seem so hard for us at a given moment will later become natural to our character.
Aren’t unpleasant feelings always bad? Well, actually there are some feelings that if we didn’t experience them, it would be bad for us: for example, guilt and embarrassment. If we didn’t experience these things, we would do scandalous things without thinking twice. If I never felt guilty, I would rob stores without thinking twice. If I never felt embarrassed, I might even show up to school or work without clothes. Similarly, if we don’t experience fear, we might do really dangerous things without thinking about the consequence: like jumping from a tall building or bridge. Basically, there are a lot of unpleasant feelings that are in fact positive and necessary.
When it comes to bettering our character, we have to see what is convenient for us to change about ourselves and how we can go about it. It’s not just a matter of simply getting rid of all unpleasant feelings. That would also lead to personal ruin. Controlling and educating our feelings is much more complex than that.