Back in residency, I read a lot of Brene Brown. We saw a lot of very damaged people in our residency clinic and the ideas of vulnerability, armor, and perfectionism were very helpful in understanding many of my patient’s struggles. Also, those ideas helped me understand many of the physician personalities around me.
Since then, I have dabbled with Buddhist, Stoic, and modern psychological thought. Much of this was to help me deal with my own grief. Most of these ideas overlap and complement each other. However, occasionally ideas conflict. When they do, I feel a need to resolve this conflict.
One such conflict was the idea of “Foreboding Joy” in Brene Brown’s work and “Worst Case Scenario Thinking (premeditatio malorum/premeditation of evils/negative visualization)” in Stoic thought. The Stoics recommend the latter, whereas Brene Brown views the former as a detrimental practice. Initially, they seemed very similar to me, so I was perplexed.
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.”
The idea of foreboding joy is the imaging terrible things happening as a way to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of feeling joy at the prospect of something. In protecting ourselves from vulnerability, we rob joy from our lives. Obviously, Brene Brown argues, this is detrimental to our overall happiness and a life well lived.
How, she argues, can we live our lives fully if we won’t let ourselves experience joy? Is the risk of pain worth removing joy from our lives?
I think we would all generally agree it isn’t.
Foreboding Joy becomes a mental trap we lay for ourselves, protectively and instinctively. The work then, is catching ourselves laying this trap and slowly and repeatedly undoing it.
The Stoics, on the surface, seem to recommend the opposite approach.
The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.
Seneca and others actively recommended the practice of imagining the worst possible outcome of a scenario to prepare ourselves for tragedy. They argued it strengthens us in the face of tragedy.
On the one hand, they argued we would be better prepared to combat any ill which may befall us if we had anticipated it. On the other hand, if there was no way to combat the ill, we would be better prepared to accept it if we had anticipated.
Does this not seem like contradictory advice to Brene Brown’s? Doesn’t imagining all the negative outcomes ahead of time rob us of our present joy? How is it possible to both anticipate evils which may befall us and no forebode our own joy?
For weeks after reading of the practice of premeditating on evils, I struggled with how it intersected with the dangers of foreboding joy. Like most things in life, I came to the conclusion that it depended on the execution and one’s approach to the question.
I came to this by meditating on our own great tragedy, the loss of our first daughter.
Tragedy as My Teacher
When my wife called me in the middle of a clinic day and told me she was to be induced for polyhydramnios, I immediately did a quick literature search.
I came face to face with all the terrible possibilities.
Based on a quick rule out of maternal reasons for polyhydramnios, I concluded something could be very wrong with our baby.
As the pines zoomed past me on the drive to the hospital, I though of the possibility that our child may not live. It was a terrible possibility. I also remember thinking, “We’ll deal that if we have to.” There was nothing to do in the moment but have our baby.
In no other moment in my life have I been so present as during the labor and birth of our first daughter. Knowing what I knew about the future and my powerlessness to affect it drove me deeply into the present, beside my wife.
I sat next to her as she breathed through contractions. I supported her as she swayed and moaned around the room as Latin music played softly in the background. For 6 hours, I knew no past or future.
The world reduced to my wife and I and the electronically registered heartbeat of our baby.
Foreboding Joy or Premeditating on Evils?
A year or more later, as I wrestled with the concepts of foreboding joy and negative visualization, I thought back to these moments. Had I not visualized the worst possible outcome?
Yet, it had not destroyed the joy in being present with my wife during her labor. It may not have intensified the joy of the birth, but it did intensify my immersion in the experience. My imagining of future ills had not, in fact, robbed me of my present and its joys.
I thought of another moment of intense emotion: when we decided to try for another child. We were still grieving, our loss was less than 1 year old. And here we were, sitting in another state, planning to start down the path again.
Knowing better than most the possible tragedies which could befall us, we jointly made the decision to start our journey. We both knew we could lose a second child. We could not ignore it. We were terrified, yet also knew we had survived it – even as painful as it was.
We did visualize losing this new person we would attempt to bring into the world. We did not dance around it, we faced it head on. We decided it was worth the risk.
Courage is the Difference
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.
-Ambrose Redmoon (James Neil Hollingsworth)
I believe the apparent conflict of foreboding joy and premeditation of evils can be resolved by understanding the problems of uncertainty, fear, and courage. It all depends on how one practices the premeditation of evils.
If we practice negative visualization as a way to wall ourselves off from possible harm and disappointment, it is a form a foreboding joy. It is an attempt to emotionally shield ourselves from vulnerability.
On the other hand, we can choose to use negative visualization to better understand our fears, worries, and possible consequences. Instead of walling off vulnerability by imagining terrible things, we consciously accept them as possible.
Then, we must decide it is worth the risk. If, knowing the risks, we move forward, not rashly, but deliberately; we are being more intentionally and, I dare say, courageously, vulnerable.
It would not have been courageous to ignore losing our second child was not an option. Naming and knowing our fears, letting ourselves feel them in a conscious way, and deciding something else is more important, is a courageously vulnerable action.
Knowing our Fears
I believe the ideas of foreboding joy and premeditation of evils are not opposed. However, their dangers and benefits depends on our approach to them. Are we practicing negative visualization intentionally? Or, are we succumbing to unintentional, unfelt fears and pulling back, hiding from risk and loss?
Naming and letting ourselves feel our fears can be used to help us live more courageous and vulnerable lives. However, if we run from them and only know them in short blips of foreboding, which we then try and scrub from our memory, we are hiding from life. We are letting our intolerance for uncertainty, risk, and loss control us, not embracing of life and its complexities.