The case for catharsis

Photo by Dani Sisson Student Publications

The Greeks were so renowned for their devastating stories that their tragedies have basically become their own prolific genre. From “Oedipus Rex” to “Prometheus Bound,” audiences have been brought to tears by stories for centuries. They watched characters they had grown to fall in love with be relentlessly hurt by a punishing narrative that — more often than not — ended with the beloved hero dead or exiled, and they did all of this willingly. 

The soul-wrenching impact of these tragedies was so common that Aristotle even coined a term for it in Poetics: catharsis. The actual, medical definition of the word catharsis is the removal of catamenia, or reproductive material, from a patient. Aristotle believed that tragedy impacted the body in a similar, metaphorical sense. 

When we allow ourselves to cry and mourn tragedies, we allow ourselves to confront the inescapable nature of suffering and, in some ways, make peace with it. And even though Greek tragedies no longer make up the majority of mainstream media, the same ideas can easily be put into practice today.

Whether that be crying to your favorite sad song or rewatching “Titanic,” sometimes just allowing yourself to feel sad is the first step to moving on from it. Oftentimes, when I’m upset about something going on in my personal life, I queue up “The Imitation Game” — the absolutely devastating, real-life account of the life and untimely death of Alan Turing — and I almost always find myself oddly feeling better afterward.

It may seem counteractive to consume more depressing media when you’re upset, but in a roundabout kind of way, I find that it helps. I don’t mean it in an “other people have it worse than me” mentality, which is not a healthy way to view your problems regardless but rather as a way to find emotional relief.

Catharsis doesn’t always have to involve crying. In the same way that people express their emotions differently, there is no correct way to experience catharsis. 

If you’re a crying person, which I have absolutely no shame in admitting that I am, then maybe catharsis looks like having a good, solid cry. If you’re someone who hasn’t cried since you were five, then maybe catharsis could look like just letting yourself listen to sad music and wallow in your emotions. 

The Ancient Greeks may have had some questionable ideas (see gladiator fighting), but they were definitely onto something with their tragedies. 

In an environment as high stress as the Institute, finding a way to release your emotions is crucial to succeeding socially, emotionally and academically. Otherwise, you’re letting them bottle up and collect pressure until they inevitably explode — messily, unexpectedly and painfully.

There’s no shame in being emotional — contrary to what you may have been told. Societal ideals of being stoic and untouchable, especially for men, are far more harmful than beneficial. 

Remember that the Ancient Greeks also invented modern democracy, so I would say that catharsis can’t be too bad of an idea.