In Praise of the Black Wolf
The Internet houses a story of two wolves.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The tale is found scattered through the psychological self-help pages of cyberspace, and is used mainly to encourage us to embrace the power we have over ‘negative’ thoughts and behaviours.
Tentatively putting aside the issues of cultural appropriation (the story in fact has no connection to native American folklore, but is a mutation of a parable written by prominent American televangelist Billy Graham) and those of the highly problematic suggestion that white = good and black = bad, let’s focus here on the psychological metaphors presented.
Certainly, at face value, the story can be seen as a useful allegory for such behavioural change frameworks as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which are often used successfully within coaching; recognise and stop unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving (starving the black wolf), and practice replacing them with more helpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours (feeding the white wolf). However, problems clearly arise when we start to think about reducing human emotions into such clear-cut binaries.
That the story describes the first wolf as “evil” and the latter as “good” should perhaps not be surprising, given its religious underpinnings. However, the implications of describing such emotions as sorrow, anger, regret, and guilt as “evil” within a secular context are interesting to say the least. Indeed, entire dystopian novels are based on the horrifying hypothetical of a world in which society allows only the ‘white wolf’ to be nourished, resulting in the rise of a maniacally-grinning population of Stepford wives.
The focus on ‘positive’ emotions is so deeply ingrained into our current understanding of wellbeing that it is easy to lose sight of how very modern an idea this is. Look outside the boundaries of modern consumerist societies and it is virtually impossible to find a culture which doesn’t encourage, to some extent, not only an acceptance, but indeed a deep contemplation of those human emotions that are not comfortable to experience. This is not simply because life was (and often still is) harder outside of these boundaries. From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions – including so-called ‘negative’ emotions – have an adaptive advantage, for both the individual and the group. It is very difficult to enact change without allowing for the experience of such emotions as regret, guilt, anger, and sorrow.
Robert Biswas-Diener, the son of one of the ‘fathers’ of positive psychology, has himself argued for the necessity of ‘negative’ emotions. ‘Emotional agility’ – that is, the ability to regulate and manage our emotional state – requires us to be aware of and in touch with those emotions that do make us uncomfortable, particularly in a world in which a ‘positive’ presentation of self is the norm.
In The Upside of Your Dark Side, Biswas-Diener and his colleague Todd Kashdan write, “In a world where rejection, failure, self-doubt, hypocrisy, loss, boredom, and annoying and obnoxious people are inevitable, we, the authors, reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers. Indeed, rather than promoting happiness, they endorse “the ability to access the full range of psychological states, both positive and negative, to respond effectively to what life offers.”
In other words, to suppress or ‘starve’ the emotions that make us uncomfortable is to ask for trouble. We cannot prevent difficult occurrences happening, and if these emotions do become so foreign to us, what will we do when the situation calls for them? For these reasons, even labelling them as bad (let alone “evil”) has powerful ramifications: WARNING, dangerous emotions ahead. Ironically, from a CBT perspective, such ‘danger signs’ are establishing triggers for fear, and an unhealthy avoidance of the inevitable experiences of life.
Examples of this phenomenon are plentiful. The fear of such ‘negative’ emotions as boredom has us on social media, trying to find the buzz. Yet it is precisely in a state of boredom that new, creative ideas arise, while social media use has been linked to depression and anxiety, despite the positive images of smiling white teeth and holiday dinners. In this regard, the story’s metaphor is perfect for the paradox of the philosophical position it preaches. A wolf of any colour will rip the guts from a baby deer when she’s hungry (sorry Bambi).
I would argue that the solution is to stop viewing human emotions in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but rather to build our emotional vocabularies so that we are able to describe the multiple colours they represent, and to utilise them all in a way that benefits us psychologically, along with the society in which we find ourselves. That the palette of human emotion transcends binaries is explicit in the best forms of cultural expression – art, music, literature – in all of which attempting to avoid the unpleasant would result in a lack of depth, truth, and humanity.
As Jennifer Garvey-Berger suggests, telling ourselves simple stories about the world is one of the key ‘mind traps’ that prevent us from operating within complexity. In the same way that we should be aware of the cognitive distortion of ‘black and white’ thinking, so should we resist fearing our 'negative' emotions. We, and our world, will be the richer for it.
2 Wolves image by Gavin Aung Than at Zen Pencils