I know it’s a truism that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s overcoming fear. But I remember being very struck the first time I came across the idea. (Which I always thought was in The Screwtape Letters, but reading through again it doesn’t exactly say that. Have I been making up this concept all along? Surely not. Oh no, Mark Twain said it. Good.)
Anyway, I liked the idea that not only were there words for emotions, there was a word for a reaction to an emotion. There was the fear, ok, that was a thing you felt, but then you could do something about it, and that had a word too. Very useful. As per 1984, if you have a word for something it’s a lot easier to know what the thing is, and then be it or do it or discuss it or think about it.
There should be more words for the way you behave after feeling something. Because that’s something you have control over. Emotions, not so much, and that’s fine. But if we had a word for the experience of overcoming anger, say, would that help people to see anger as something you can overcome? What about a word for overcoming jealousy?*
Selfishness too. If you overcome your selfishness in order to give something away, then ok, that’s generosity; but being generous doesn’t actually imply that you’ve overcome anything. Maybe you’re just a naturally selfless person who didn’t have to fight down any impulse to keep that £20 or that last Rolo to yourself. That’s a good thing to be, like being naturally fearless is a good thing to be, but if we’re going to distinguish between ‘fearless’ and ‘courageous’, let’s distinguish too between ‘selfless’ and ‘selfish but making the effort not to be’. Because there’s always the risk that someone will fail to recognise that the latter is an option.
And how about overcoming disappointment? That’s a very specific thing, that moment when you take a deep breath, say to yourself “Well, that didn’t work out, but never mind,” and carry on with your life. That deserves a word to describe it.**
There are reactions to positive emotions to be considered too. When you feel happy and immediately stop yourself because you have no right to be happy when there’s so much sadness in the world, does that have a name? When you feel excited about something and then a bit of your brain says “I bet it’ll be crap,” and you deflate? If we had words for those maybe we could persuade ourselves to do them less.
If I have simply forgotten that there are already perfectly good words for these things, please tell me; it’s entirely possible. If not, I shall not suggest made-up words for them, because that’s not how language gets made***, but maybe someone will come up with the right words and if they do, I promise on my mother’s allotment**** that I will start using them.
*The polyamorous community has ‘compersion’ (aka ‘frubbliness’), which broadly means “being happy about your partner’s other relationships”, although that’s more the opposite of jealousy than necessarily about overcoming it. You could use it in other more general contexts too, for things like being happy your partner has a hobby they enjoy or being happy your best friend has a new boyfriend even if you see less of them for a while – if jealousy is wanting all of someone’s time and attention, compersion is the opposite of that.
**Or does it have one already? There’s “pulling yourself together” but phrases don’t always have the same resonance as single defined words (and pulling yourself together often seems to be something people tell other people to do, which is not the same thing at all as telling oneself to do it.)
*** Except when it is. My friend invented the term ‘frubbly’ mentioned above in the pub one night, and it spread all over the place. He’s very embarrassed about it.
**** She doesn’t have a grave, thankfully, but she does have an allotment on which I am happy to swear.