Adapted from Silvan Tomkins Affect, Imagery, Consciousness v1, p316f (New York, Springer, 2008).

Distress is Necessary for Stabilizing & Developing What We Love

What a person will be distressed about depends in part, but only in part, on what s/he is excited by and/or enjoys. However much s/he has enjoyed or been excited by anything, s/he is vulnerable to distress at any interruption to continuation of such enjoyment or any barrier to repetition or increased contact with it (as with a pleasurable habit). The reverse is equally true, that what we have been made to suffer for can also become a source of intense enjoyment when that distress is suddenly reduced (eg. The Florence Nightingale Effect).

Thus suffering and enjoyment are not just activated by each other, so that one can suffer most about what one enjoys and cares for, and can enjoy most what has cost one suffering, but these two apparently opposite feeling states are capable of mutually so increasing each other’s intensity that intense and enduring emotional attachment can become centered (or take up residence) in particular love objects (such as passionate loves and favorite relatives, pets or possessions). Thus, to guarantee commitment to any focus of emotion, whether it be a person, an institution, a profession, or a way of life, it needs not only intense rewards but also sufficient distress, in the form of challenges, separations and deprivations. For thus excitement is continually sustained by these sources of uncertainty and by the continual redefinition of the object of our emotions, and enjoyment heightened by overcoming these impediments, by achieving reunion with the love object, and by attaining a redefined “new” love object now viewed in another perspective following the bout of distress. (ex: absence makes the heart grow fonder)

Expanding the Spectrum of Distress Fosters Actualization of Human Potential

Like all inborn emotions, distress is completely generalizable to any and all objects and focuses. And because distress is a necessary condition for stable commitment to any  objects, distress can  continually enlarge the spectrum of objects of emotional concern to any human being. The objects of distress—and thus of love and concern—are in no way limited to what we have learned to be disturbed by in childhood. Human growth necessarily entails new objects of distress as much as it entails new objects of joy and excitement. Therefore, if I do not learn to become distressed by what can happen to my friends, to my spouse, to my children, to my profession or calling, to my community, to my nation and to my world—including its animals, plants, resources, lands, waters and skies—then I’m not yet completely human. (Final elements added for today’s world.)

Distress doesn’t force avoidance, but promotes remediation.

Distress is not a toxic crippling emotional state that necessarily generates avoidance strategies, but rather promotes remedial strategies which can attack the source of my distress. The presence of distress indicates a potential for remedial action either by the person or wither/his support. Therefore one might assess the level of normal development by the width of the distress spectrum. To whatever extent there are many kinds of distress insensitivity on the part of any individual, there is developmental retardation. Such retardation is not inconsistent with otherwise normal development.

A profile of distress sensitivity might also be used as a measure of the development of a society. Any society which is not distressed by its illnesses, its injustices, its discrepancies between abilities and achievements, its lack of excitement and enjoyment, or its fears, humiliations, hostilities and contemptuous attitudes is an underdeveloped society.

A society that doesn’t remediate distress is underdeveloped.

If remediable conditions evoke no distress and therefore no remedial action, a person or a society is in a condition analogous to someone sick who develops no temperature or no other strategies to deal with its disturbance. Although a person or a society in continual distress is not in an optimal condition, the total lack of distress when non-optimal conditions could be remedied if there were distress is a more serious deviation from optimal functioning.

To educate for empathizing with other groups & ethnicities

Avoidance is a possible choice when distress is experienced. Although distress-anguish is more tolerable than fear-terror, it is sufficiently unpleasant that human beings would rather not experience distress if it is possible to avoid the experience. Therefore, if development requires a widening of the spectrum of objects of suffering, then the education of the young as well as the adult requires exposure to more and more sources of distress. If this widening of our awareness of suffering is not to founder on increasing resistance against the experience of empathic distress, it must be preceded and accompanied by experiences which create excitement and enjoyment in connection with the objects of distress and by experiences which create excitement and enjoyment of the emotional rewards from remedial action.

Applying this strategy to Black Lives Matter.

In the case of one of our most serious remediable problems, the plight of the Southern Negro citizens, empathic distress should first be built upon delineations of their lives and characters as they exist here and now which delight their fellow whites. These images should stress aspects that whites admire, enjoy or respect, which enhance communion and identification, and provide glimpses into a future America in which there is mutual respect and enjoyment between all people. If and when positive emotions are experienced by whites about Negroes (ie black lives matter), then the distress and anger necessary to mobilize remedial action will be more easily activated and sustained. Nobody has to urge distress upon anyone who is aware that a loved one is suffering. (Published in 1962.)

1. Distress is Necessary for Stabilizing Love & Expanding Human Potential.

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