Paradoxically, celebration and mourning* are similar processes. They involve similar steps and achieve similar purposes. And they are similarly misunderstood and neglected, despite their critical importance to a joyful life. Neither celebration nor mourning concerns an emotional experience per se. Their essence is that they involve strengthening your own values. I will explain this first with respect to mourning, then with respect to celebration.
“Mourning” does not mean “feeling sad.” Yes, you will feel sad if you lose someone or something. Yes, you will feel sad if you fail to achieve your goal. The emotion of grief follows automatically when you recognize a loss in your life. That is the way the emotional system works.
But feeling sad is not the be-all and end-all of mourning. The function of emotions is to alert you to values that are at stake in the moment. By “at stake in the moment,” I mean that the action you take now, in the present, will determine whether or not you gain and/or keep that value. To complete the mourning process, you need to introspect your emotions further to see the values at stake now, so that they can be factored into your choice of action now.
You may be wondering, what value? How can you gain and keep a value that you just lost? For example, my mother died. I cannot bring her back. I set a goal to publish a book by the time I was 40. I didn’t. I am long past 40 now; that goal cannot be achieved. How can my mother or that goal be “at stake now”?
Something deeper is at stake now — and that is why you need to process your grief.
Losses always concern concrete values. The concrete person you loved deeply may be an irreplaceable value. The failure to achieve a concrete goal may be final. But the deeper, more abstract values embodied in the concretes can still be gained. The work of mourning is to identify these deeper values, and as a result, to see that you can still seek them on this earth. It is the process of honoring and reaffirming the deeper values that then heals the wounds of loss.
For example, I lost my mother a little over a year ago. I spent many hours “processing” my emotions concerning her and her death. What does “processing” my emotions mean? It means I spent that time understanding my values, the values that underlay all of my feelings. I thought about why I loved her and why I was sometimes frustrated by her. I thought about what her actions meant to me, and mine to her. I understood my values in part by understanding better her values. I came to appreciate her independence more deeply and to cherish her benevolence more consciously. And I chose to be inspired by her example to emulate these in my life. By becoming more aware of what I loved about my mother — and what I didn’t — I clarified my own value hierarchy. I strengthened my own values.
The same kind of process is involved when you fail to achieve a concrete goal. You learn something about yourself. When I turned 40 without having finished a book, I learned something important about realistic goal setting — and my priorities. I could have published a lousy book before I was 40, but what would have been the point? I accepted the challenge to develop the skill to write a true, clear and interesting book…as soon as I could.
It is the clarity about your own values that motivates you to form new relationships and set new goals, and gives you the strength to pursue them. These new interests then take away the sting of loss.
“Processing your emotions” means identifying the deep values at stake now. It is not enough to know that you feel sad, or what caused you to feel sad. You also need to ask yourself, “What values of mine am I being alerted to? What do I need to do now to gain and/or keep them — or regain them — or rediscover them?” You need to know: What is the import for action?
The exact same process is needed when you feel joy from a success, or you feel love for someone or something in your life. When you feel joy, you have an opportunity to strengthen your values. If you just let the emotion pass without processing it, you miss out on clarifying just what caused this wonderful experience, and why it is wonderful. That is what celebration is for.
For example, I took the weekend off recently to see the foliage in Maine. I inherited a lake cottage from my mother that is near where I grew up.
Travel always has its hassles. But once I got off the highways onto the country roads, I noticed I was feeling joy. I soaked in the colors all around. I said to myself, “This is why I came.” I came for the beauty. I came for the forest.
It rained the first day, so I took care of some chores inside my cottage. I was flooded by memories of my mother and father. They both loved sitting by the lake, and so do I. I thought about how sitting by the water grounds me. I thought about what I’d learned from them.
The next afternoon the sun came out. With a blue sky, the view was transformed from homey to stunning. I reminded myself that this is why I came.
I spent the next three hours enjoying the view from a nearby hill, tromping around in the woods, and picking apples. I came for the solitude. I came for the revivification. And because I was consciously celebrating instead of just enjoying my time, on this trip I realized just how much I want to make time to spend in the forest in the future.
When you celebrate, you don’t just “stop and smell the roses.” You appreciate the person who planted the bushes, and the love that went into ensuring they flourish, and you consider how to bring roses into your life more often.
Take the time to celebrate and to mourn. You will strengthen your values, and your ability to gain them. Joy and sadness will be transformed into self-awareness and intention.
* I learned the importance of celebration and mourning from Marshall Rosenberg, who called these “universal needs.” I talk about these concepts in my (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit. They are discussed in the class “Emotions and Values 101” included in that kit.