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What Is the Strongest Emotion?

After one of my students finished taking his final exam in class, he just sat there. He looked at his phone for a bit, and then he put his head down on his desk like he was waiting. Finally, I said to him, "You can go if you're done." He replied, "I know. I don't want to leave because then I won't be in your class anymore." My heart melted. He sighed, came over to give me a hug, and then left to go on with the next part of his life.

This student was a good student all semester. He seemed to have an enjoyable time in class. But if he could see the big picture, he's not actually sad to leave. Of course he would grow tired of my classes if they continued on and on. Rather, it's just that change is scary and the familiar is comfortable. It's fear.

I empathize with this impulse. As a child, no one in my family would have predicted I could move far away from home. I clung to my mom growing up and didn't like to leave the house much, let alone talk to folks. I was terrified of unpredictable people being mean to me. I didn't like the uncertain, and I didn't like change. Fear made me paralyzingly shy.

As my students and I discuss poetry and fiction throughout the semester, I point to places in the texts where, again and again, we see that fear is the strongest human emotion. Fear drives anything negative and destructive. I know we would like the strongest emotion to be love, but studying history and the products of the human mind show us otherwise. Fear is the creator of war, of murder and genocide, of book burning and prejudices, and of anything that holds us back as a species. Fear is where anger, greed, jealousy, and sadness originate. Fear is what makes us resistant to change.

Most fears can be whittled down to the fear of death, which in Sanskrit is called Abhinivesha. In yoga philosophy, Abhinivesha is one of the five Kleshas, or causes of affliction. According to Patanjali, the Kleshas are the primary obstacles on the spiritual path. While it’s good to want to stay healthy and not become injured, avoiding risk altogether stunts happiness and fulfillment.

But here's the thing: there is one emotion that can conquer fear. It's hope.

Hope is the driver of anything positive. Happiness, contentment, creativity, love: they come from hope. I was able to leave home because the hope that I could become something wonderful was stronger than my fear that I would meet challenges I couldn't overcome.

Next time you are encountering a difficult moment or a difficult emotion, ask yourself, "What is it I fear here?" Is it really death, or is it something else? Incompetence, loneliness, the unknown? When you locate the fear from which the difficulty stems, it's easier to then locate your hope. And hope, friends, is where you can grow and where you can rest. Like the lotus that blooms in mud, hope is the beauty that transforms fear into something amazing.


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May you be happy. May you be well.

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