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No feeling good without feeling bad — about the need for emotion itself.



Scheize — Liebe — Sehnsucht’*. This is the title of an exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson, that inspired me to write this text. Kjartansson’s art, which came to my attention only last year, was appointed amongst the 25 best art pieces of the 21st century.


Which is only one reason why I will follow his work in the future.

He’s also from Iceland — and you might be aware of what some say about people from Iceland. Melancholic, amongst others. And indeed, in a short trailer that about his exhibition, he says that his art is about ‘sorrow and death.’


The piece that gave me the most goosebumps, was ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, a beautiful collaboration with the National, who I generally like. ‘A Lot of Sorrow’ is actually a six-hour video, in which the band is filmed repeating their song ‘Sorrow’ over and over again (for six hours) at the MoMa, in New York. The song is about losing yourself in self-pity, which is why it’s an interesting twist to play it over and over again.

The whole performance is like an emotional state itself. A wandering mind, where the thoughts are going left and right, only to end up nowhere, leaving you somehow exhausted.


But there are also some beautiful moments in this journey, moments of hope, joy and delightful surprise. It’s one of these art pieces, through which you are put into moods that are otherwise difficult to get to. Where you feel deeply touched, thinking about past moments, which only through this special atmosphere can find their way back into consciousness.

What the national and Ragnar Kjartansson likely have in common, is their sense for human emotion — such as love, melancholy, sorrow, pain — and their desire to express it via art.

A desire, I am really grateful for. To date, I am amazed at how little people talk about their own emotion — or any emotion whatsoever. At how little space and importance our feelings have in our today’s society. And especially at how strange some react once you try to lead by example and express how you really feel.

It is almost as if you have to fear the jealousy of others when you are too happy yourself. And if you’re really sad, you need to worry that your opposite might feel down, too.

But human emotion is so valuable. And we need the full spectrum. Without pain, there can’t be joy.

What’s the point of feeling sad or angry you may ask?

Well, it’s the proof that something isn’t alright, even though it might not be visible or directly accessible to you. Not feeling well is like a compass — it provides you a way towards change. And if there is currently nothing we can do, sadness still helps us to accept and feel sad about something. Which is exactly what we need to carry on in a healthy way.

The concept of dividing emotion in ‘good and ‘bad’ is a flawed concept in itself. Because it implies that only the good ones are the ones we ought to have.

But we need all sets of emotion to feel complete. If we would only feel happy, what would be there to strive for? How dull life would be, if the only feeling you could feel was joy. Moreover, if people strive for absolute happiness, they strive for an illusion. One that sometimes can even be dangerous. Because in order to just be happy, we need to shut out all our other emotions, and thereby we deprive ourselves of valuable hints on how we need to alter our behavior to further grow and develop.

Because no live is perfect and no world is great. So we are denying live with its challenges, and therefore at the end of the day, also deny ourselves.

I myself remember a time where I felt way less pain and worry than I do nowadays. But that was because I had no way to feel anything intense really.

It’s not like I really couldn’t feel anything at all, it’s more that I would describe it in a way that I just wouldn’t know how to be with it, understand it’s meaning or properly feel it in all its dimensions. Without being aware, I had managed to put myself into some kind of protective wrapper. Like a filter that softens every noise. That may sound comfortable. But the price to pay is that also positive emotions are softened. You cannot mark out specific emotions or decide which one you’re going to feel and which not. Like with drugs, you either numb everything or nothing. And I would always choose everything.

Especially considering the fact that it is emotion that makes life worth living and enables us to feel complete.

Why be more open about it?

I believe that many things could be avoided if we would be more open about our emotion and how we truly feel. Still, there is this stigma, that being emotional is considered a weakness. There’s areas in our lives, such as work to give one example, where some emotions are just not welcome. To me, this is a problem because I believe that the opposite should be the case.

Not being able to talk about emotions has an effect that is far more dangerous. Because feelings don’t go away if we just don’t talk about, thus don’t think about them.

Suppressed feelings can have the worst consequences. It’s a bit like this: Whenever you neglect a feeling, you can be sure it will only grow stronger inside. So all you do is buy yourself some time before it comes back with twice the power.

One of the reasons why we sometimes encounter extreme emotional eruptions, such as rage, is because there is underlying pain, that has never been addressed and therefore has found only one way to escape and become visible. Anger, mostly projected onto others.

But who bothers?

It may sometimes seem that people are not interested in how you really are. The compulsory ‘how are you’, most professionalized in the US, is not an attempt to get an honest answer. It is an attempt to get a guarantee that everything is fine. That we are alright and life, i.e. our world, is good.

But I don’t think it’s that people aren’t interested. I think people are afraid of the honest answer because they have difficulties to deal with it.

What people seem to be most afraid of, is when other people feel bad, almost as it would be contagious. Maybe it’s because it puts up a mirror or it demonstrates the vulnerability that so many are afraid of. Or it threatens the protective shield that some have built up so long and laboriously, and that costs so much energy to maintain. It might be the skepticism against the unknown: if you cannot feel things for yourself, you might find it odd that others can and talk so openly about it. Being able to identify your emotions and the source of it is already hard work that not everyone is willing to do.

Or perhaps it’s just that people don’t know what to say.

There are countless articles out there with titles like ‘How to deal with somebody who’s depressed’. Even though some have already decided that it’s better not to talk to somebody with depression after all.

But this is wrong! You already feel alone and hopeless when you suffer from depression, so it certainly doesn’t help if people avoid you on top of it.

So I wonder, how card can it possibly be? To show some compassion and to be there.

It’s not that people who feel sad are some kind of aliens. But if we treat them as they would be, it’s not really helping that fact either. So just get your act together and dare to be vulnerable. Because it requires some real vulnerability from yourself too, to be with somebody in pain.

If you can manage to break through this vicious circle of feeling weird (feeling weird to be open, only to then feeling weird about that, too) it can be a beautiful experience that helps both parties to grow.

Because being able to share emotion is even greater than talking about it. I think that can be called resonance and it’s one of the most powerful capabilities we as humans have in order to feel deeply connected. It’s a beautiful experience — but unfortunately one, that some of us will never be able to benefit from.

*Shit — Love — Desire: apparently his favorite German words. And what I especially liked, is that they all need each other to coexist.

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