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  • Armand Inezian

What a YA novel from 2001 taught me about negative emotions.


I am a fairly eclectic reader. I like to delve into a different genres: literary fiction, the classics, fantasy. Sometimes I read kids' books, YA, non-fiction, and even poetry. Lately, with the world falling apart, I have reading the NY Times more than anything else, but my point is that I'll pick up a book from almost anywhere.


My most recent read was Touching Spirit Bear, a YA novel by Ben Mikaelsen. Touching Spirit Bear is a tough-love kind of novel about a teenaged boy who must deal with his uncontrollable anger issues by living alone on a wilderness island in Alaska. We got the book because it was part of my son's 8th grade summer-reading list, and I grabbed it from the shelf on a whim and started reading.


Overall, the story is fairly compelling, and while I have read better books, Touching Spirit Bear is particularly interesting because I actually learned something about my own life.


This is what happens: When the main character, Cole Matthews, is sent to live alone on an island, he is escorted (and "sponsored") by two Native Americans, both of whom have dealt with anger issues of their own.


One of them, Edwin, talks Cole through a scenario. He picks up a stick and asks Cole to imagine that right end of the stick is Cole's happiness, and that the left side is Cole's anger. Then he asks Cole to break off the left side of the stick to get rid of his anger, so Cole does just that.


"You broke off the left end, but the left end still exists," Edwin tells him.


"The left end will always be there," Cole replies.


Edwin explains that people spend their lives breaking the stick to get rid of anger, but it will never entirely go away, …"because there will always be a left end to a stick."


So Cole asks how people get rid of anger then, and Edwin basically explains that anger will always be there, and that we just have to choose to focus more on happiness (the other end of the stick) and less on being angry.


As I read this, I realized it was a very thoughtful way to address negative emotions. Instead of trying to remove the negative feeling- like anger or self-pity- and pretending it was never there (which may be impossible), I should try to live with the negative feelings, but also focus on the "right side of the stick", on feelings like forgiveness and gratitude that can move me towards having a better life. As I spend more time with these positive emotions, I can learn to better accommodate the negative ones which makes them less of an impediment in everyday life.


It's very rare that I feel like I actually learned a practical life skill, or a different way of thinking from a novel (I'm more likely to learn such things from non-fiction), and I just needed to tip my hat to Ben Mikaelsen and his book!

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