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“Negative Emotions” by Lydia Davis Essay

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Updated: May 25th, 2021

Introduction

The short story “Negative Emotions” by Lydia Davis is a powerful moral tale. The passage manages to touch the very core concept of interpersonal and inner psychological processes without the necessity to create complicated plot devices. The tale can be defined as a parable in literary terms. In “Negative Emotions,” resentment is described as the emotion that human beings harbor, which reflects on interpersonal relationships through metaphorically overbearing the emotional balance and one’s identity.

Background

In order to comprehend the morality of the short story, it is important to understand the central emotion. Resentment is a complex emotion that is closely intertwined with anger. Technically, resentment is a particular type of anger. Also, it combines aspects of fear, envy, and contempt. Emotion arises as a situational reaction to the violation of one’s values. It is a defensive moral mechanism that in its purest form gives the ability and strength to defy injustice. Resentment is natural in people with a moral compass to determine right and wrong actions. However, philosophers argue that each individual’s values vary. Even a self-centered, amoral person can feel resentment. This is detrimental as it inflates egoistic pride and personal moral worth (MacLachlan 424).

There is a term attributed to Nietzsche which uses the French word “ressentiment” as a description of the perpetual psychological state of negative emotions. These include hatred, contempt, and envy that cannot be infinitely satisfied. It is a philosophical exploration of resentment. In this state, the mind constructs an adversary whom we consider evil and immoral. Subconsciously, the noble ethical role is assigned to oneself without any basis other than dramatic opposition to the enemy. Such self-glorification is contradictory to what is considered right by human society (Fassin 257). “They thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions and needing advice about how to handle them” (Davis par. 3). It is implied that those who received the message took it as a judgment of character, immediately taking a stance of infallibility. This shows the delicate divide where ethnically correct resentment becomes unreasonable and inherently malicious.

Interpersonal Relationships

In the story, the other teachers exemplify their reaction as a supposed defense against unfair accusations. Resentment becomes a reasonable justification for their feelings and actions. Ironically, the emotion is almost overwhelming when it is towards someone whom the person loves or respects. Resentment can be alienating as it consumes any will for reconciliation. There is an evident breakdown in relationships. People experiencing extreme resentment create conflicts that are inevitably destructive for everyone involved. It is inherently antisocial as the noxious nature of the emotion leads to harboring bitterness and expressing it by all appropriate means (Fassin 255). Mentally, the person receiving any resentment is condemned like a prisoner would be in court. However, unlike the real world, our mind is the judge, jury, and executioner. Resentful behavior serves as a swift punishment by abruptly destroying the relationship.

Davis writes, “they resented their colleague” and, in the end, “liked having negative emotions, particularly about him” (par. 3-4). Resentment is a very personal emotion, rarely expressed broadly. Unfortunately, in this short story, it came to define the interpersonal relationship between the characters. In “Negative Emotions,” which lacks a clear plot narrative, there is little information to make unambiguous judgments. However, it is assumed that the characters had an ethical code that was violated to create the conflict. Interpersonal relationships in society are based on these expectations. When violated, willing or unwillingly, the social balance begins to shatter with interpersonal conflicts rooted in resentment (MacLachlan 429).

Psychological Analysis

Resentment has very detrimental and perpetual psychological effects. It represents an evolution of anger and other related emotions from being superficially reactive to lingering and entrenched. Constant anger cannot lead to personal satisfaction or development, no matter the warranted circumstances. Resentment comes in stages, once again referencing the metaphor in the story. A storm arrives in waves. While the teachers’ responses may have been immediate, Davis indicates that they undergo a series of emotional conundrums. Further, they make the choice of expressing their reaction. Their decision to “not focus” is an indicator of accepting resentment as the driving force to their emotional aptitude from therefore on. Both initially and further on, they expressed the lack of intent to use calming techniques. Resentment is a powerful force originally but later becomes devastatingly absorbing. The initial show of behavior transforms into a resentful sense of identity. Instead of making the difficult choice of resistance to negativity, the teachers begin to use it as a feeling of release as they “liked having negative emotions” (Davis par. 4). Resentment becomes overbearing on all levels of psychological and emotional health.

The wisdom of the story is central to the metaphor described by the Buddhist monk, which identifies negative emotions as a storm. “The teachers did not choose to regard their anger as a coming storm” (Davis par 4). This sentence directly relates the teachers’ emotion of resentment to the storm metaphor. Their flow of emotions came crashing down as confusion leads to anger. It then becomes resentment and eventually leads to hatred. It can be argued that for most people, emotions are difficult to control, whether positive or negative. Nevertheless, an immediate reaction (which was initial confusion) should be softened by reason and a balanced mental state. The story describes a complete disregard for the “well-meaning” intention and outright ignorance of the message. They showed a lack of understanding of why the message was sent. Most likely, it reflected their confusion about the origin of THE personal emotions. Overall, the situation indicates the unhealthy emotional state of the responders. The resentment that they embraced was already a part of their identity. The message was simply the spark that created the perfect outlet for negative emotions.

Conclusion

It is clear that resentment is natural human emotion. However, it is one that tends to evolve and escalate to the point of creating a barrier to a healthy state of mind. The psychology behind emotion indicates how influential it is on personal actions. The “storm” of negative emotions creates an inherent imbalance in a person. Most people are not prepared and let resentment consume them. It becomes a point of ruin in interpersonal relationships. The state of ressentiment distorts rationality, purpose, and morality. Unfortunately, as portrayed in the story, people are unable to resist. Their purpose of living and identity begins to center around resentment. Perhaps, the righteous path starts with a sense of acceptance and being prepared for such emotional turmoil by using the “calming techniques” (Davis par. 1).

Works Cited

Davis, Lydia. “Negative Emotions.” Tweed’s, 2012, Web.

Fassin, Didier. “On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions.” Current Anthropology, vol. 54, no. 3, 2013, pp. 249-261, Web.

MacLachlan, Alice. “Unreasonable Resentments.” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 41, no. 4, 2010, pp. 422-441, Web.

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