In a classic episode of Seinfeld, the character Frank Costanza spends most of the episode yelling, “Serenity now!”
He says it’s a therapy technique he learned from a self-help tape: Each time you feel anger coming on, simply declare, “Serenity now,” and you’re supposed to become suddenly calmer. His son George asks if he is supposed to angrily yell the mantra out loud, and Frank says, “The man in the tape wasn’t specific.”
I’ve often thought back on this episode. It seems to me to represent how we usually deal with emotions: Fight them. If anger comes up, we yell at it. If worry comes up, we get into a tug of war with it. If sadness comes up, we get angry again. The vicious cycle continues.
But the truth is that we are not our emotions. A feeling is just that—a feeling. We think we are averting the negative feeling, but all we’ve done is feed it. You can’t trick an emotion into going away.
Seinfeld was such a great show. Of course I think about it philosophically, because that’s what I learned to do in college: hear a story then ruminate on what we can learn from it. And what we can learn from Seinfeld is that the more we fight our petty concerns in life, the more we deepen our discomfort. If something bugs us, it’s often better to let it go, than swat at it.
I’m personally still learning to understand this concept in a deep way. Usually by the time I notice the presence of an emotion, it has already got its hold on me. I’ve already lost control. But with practice, I’ve gotten slightly better: I can say, There is anger. There is sadness. There is worry. Hello, feelings!
Ah, serenity now…