No, I did not see Toy Story 3; but, recently, my wife and two daughters did. When my wife came home, she shared with me the premise of the story. As she told it to me, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Similar to the bubbling over sensation when we uncontrollably belly laugh, I felt a strong sense that I was going to cry.
After all, the story is about the boy, Andy, who has now grown up (from Toy Story 2 and 3) and is getting ready to leave for college. Apparently, Andy decides to take Woody with him to college and leave his other toys in a garbage bag, which his mother mistakes for trash and leaves at the curb. The story follows with the toys trying to make their way back to Andy.
Why should this cause such sadness? Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my oldest son will be a senior in high school this coming year.
Earlier this week, I went to visit a friend/patient at Westchester Medical Center on the campus of New York Medical College, my alma mater. I also spent the last two years of residency at the Medical Center. Driving up the long, winding road, I approached the large hospital buildings. Although it is not very far away, just across the Hudson River, a short 20-minute drive with no traffic, I had not visited there in at least 20 years.
The Cabin Restaurant/Bar was still there on the corner, a frequent stop after karate class (work hard, play hard was our motto back then!). There were the residence buildings, where I lived during my third year of residency and the grassy area where we held our Karate class when we were temporarily kicked out of our space in one of the buildings because we lacked the proper permit. Many more memories flooded back, fast and furious, and that same sense of sadness that I had experienced the week before, returned.
So the question is, from where does such sadness arise? Could it be the automatic brain (AB) about which I write and often speak? Or are my children correct when they challenge, “Dad, not everything is the automatic brain!” In these cases, I have to say, yes, the AB is the origin. Let’s take a closer look.
Sadness is generally an emotion associated with loss or missed opportunities. And although, when short-lived it may reaffirm our humanity and even be sort of cathartic, when it lasts, it serves to drain the life force from us. In the extreme, it can lead to further withdrawal or depression.
But if this is AB stuff, what could the danger be that causes this emotion of sadness, which I classify as a flight reaction?
If you look closely at your own life, you will notice that most of the time, sadness originates from recollections of the past. As I see it, the danger, from which the AB causes you to flee with the emotion of sadness, is the uncertainty of the future. When our brain drifts into the memory banks of our past, we see events of which we know the outcome. Anything unknown is inherently dangerous and the future is the epitome of this. When sadness strikes from loss or missed opportunity, it is a call for you to retreat to the known outcome, even if it is not so comforting, at least it is known and therefore, less dangerous to this primitive, mindless AB.
The AB is so hard-wired to protect us from any form of danger, threat, or vulnerability that it functions to create thoughts and behaviors to make us fight or flee such danger, by all means necessary. By all means necessary, in the case of sadness, is to release selective memories of the past in order to drive you to flee the untold potential danger that awaits you in the future (our own death included).
As it releases the selective memories, it makes you doubt that you will ever be able to recreate the happiness, success, frivolity, excitement, empowerment, and wonderment of your past. Even if these things did not occupy much of your past, by causing sadness, the AB protects you from venturing, full throttle into the treacherous depths of the future.
Just as any AB generated behaviors and thoughts, understand that they will not last as long as you do not engage them, cultivate them, or fully believe, trust, or take direction from them. Since you are human and every human being has an AB, you will experience these thoughts and behaviors throughout your life. The key is not to go with them to the extent that they lead to chronic patterns, such as depression or persistent anger.
Here are some of the things that I have found helpful to prevent this brain from draining me, with its overbearing need to protect me, via emotions like sadness.
1. Acknowledge the sadness as part of you being human and having an automatic brain.
2. Breathe, slowly in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.
3. Accept that your past has brought you to the place where you are right now. The past experiences, good or bad, make this moment what it is. As my brain drifted to visions of the pasta, my son as a young child, my karate class, the camaraderie of young doctors in training, the rapid fire other memories, I breathed and directed my focus back to the road in front of me: the trees, the birds crossing my path, the music to which I listened, the smiles on the faces of the people I passed, the warm breeze hitting my face when I left my car, the love I felt in the room of the person whom I was visiting.
4. If you find yourself getting saddened by memories, do as I did in the above step. Direct your focus to your present moment and look forward. As you breathe, affirm, â€œThere is no danger, there is no threat in the future. The future will bring me excitement and wonder; joy and success.”Â
5. Do one thing, right now, that brings you joy.
When sadness strikes, for whatever reason, you must snap out of the reverie of the past and notice what is right in front of you. It is true that your future will never be exactly the same as your past, but it can and will be what is right for you, if you allow it to be.
The way this will happen is if you keep your back up against the past and your arms around the future. Memories of the past will present themselves at the precise moments when they should, without you having to search for them. They will occur in ways that will not encourage sadness, but generate happiness, love, possibility, and hope. As you wipe away the tears, smile, breathe, and embrace the excitement and happiness that awaits you.