There is no other like Jane Austen to show us the value of examining our emotions. Whether urging us to humble ourselves to love in Pride and Prejudice or to examine how others’ justly and unjustly influence us in Persuasion, Austen has a keen eye for finding the middle ground. Sense and Sensibility, one of my favorite Austen works, is no different. Through the story of the Dashwood sisters, this novel looks at two young women at the prime age for marriage. The sisters approach love in opposite ways, demonstrating that neither, in and of itself, is ideal.
Growing up with the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, I have often found myself wanting to identify with the calm common sense of Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson), probably because I am much more like the overly expressive Marianne (Kate Winslet). Whether you tend to be more of a Marianne or an Elinor, I find that both the novel and the film offer quite a few insights into maintaining emotional balance. The more we insist on work-life balance, digital detoxes, and flexible schedules, I can’t help but think that looking back to Austen’s nineteenth-century wisdom is a great guide for finding any equilibrium today.
01. Identify the Value of Balance
Striving for emotional balance means allowing both my head and my heart to inform my decisions and reactions in daily life. I know I tend toward the sensibility side of things, so to balance myself out, I often need to take a step back and examine my feelings from a logical point of view. I’m not someone who would go screaming through the village in a rickshaw belonging to a dashing, if questionable, gentleman, but I can very much imagine going through a heartache like Marianne’s, drowning my sorrows in Shakespeare and the pouring rain.
What I’ve come to realize over the years is that my true desire is to be the best parts of both Marianne and Elinor. Jane Austen uses the story of Sense and Sensibility to show readers that an excess of either sense or sensibility can be harmful. Marianne’s overt expression of all her feelings led to heartbreak. She rushed into a relationship with Willoughby, who turned out to be a man of poor character. Elinor’s refusal to enter into her emotions—her belief, as she puts it in the film adaptation, in “using one’s head”—was at times unhealthy in the opposite direction. Upon discovering that Lucy Steele and her beloved Edward were in a secret relationship, she shared her heartbreak with no one, and in doing so, carried the weight of that grief alone.
Sense and Sensibility is ultimately about the Dashwood sisters coming into balance. Marianne learns that emotion tempered by reason is preferable, and approaches her relationship with Captain Brandon with a calmer, and deeper, kind of love. Similarly, Elinor comes to see the goodness of expressing her emotions. When she hears that Edward is free and is not in fact married to Lucy Steele, Austen writes in the novel, “Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” I like to think that she learns from Marianne the importance of sharing her heart with others.
02. Find Different Perspectives
To really find balance, you have to seek it out—actively. Part of this is making sure you have things in your life that will keep you on your toes, not settled into a singular thought process. I’ve applied the wisdom of Sense and Sensibility to my life by surrounding myself with a variety of friends. Each one understands my heart in a different way. Some struggle in the same ways I do. One friend, who shares my melancholic temperament, infuses me with hope about the future because she understands how I approach life—which is sometimes with a lot of hesitancy. She encourages me not to be one-sided in my thinking and to consider the gifts of my temperament, like being able to listen well to others.
Other friends are what I like to call lighteners. Their upbeat and positive attitudes help me see the brightness of life that sometimes gets drowned out by my worries. One of my lightener friends always seems to be brimming with joy. The way she sees the world is so different from my own, and even in spending a little time with her, I’m reminded to be thankful for all the good that is in my life.
Austen has also taught me the value of self-reflection. In the midst of the busyness that is daily life, it is good to stop and take a step back from whatever activity I am doing to contemplate things, to recenter. The act of momentarily disentangling myself from the tasks that fill my days is a great way to be aware of how I am feeling and to respond accordingly. Like the Dashwood sisters, I could use these moments to make some tea or take an afternoon walk.
03. Give Yourself a Break
However you lean on the emotional temperament spectrum, it is important to value yourself especially when you’re struggling. Whether it takes herculean effort to share how you’re feeling with a close friend, or the greater battle is to keep from blurting every emotion you’re experiencing in the present, it is important to realize that we don’t change overnight. I may always be a bit anxious (and even tearful) when trying to express frustration; I may never calmly sip tea in times of crisis. This doesn’t mean I can’t take small steps toward learning to speak my mind despite my anxiety. The point of Sense and Sensibility is that Marianne and Elinor change—they both take steps toward the center in terms of how they encounter life.
Sense and Sensibility has inspired me to keep myself balanced emotionally by taking time to look at all the good that has happened throughout the day, and to jot down some of these things at the end of the day in a gratitude journal. One of my friends keeps a variation of this journal, and writes down one funny thing that has happened in the course of the day. I can go back and remember the positive things that have happened each day and be proud of myself for putting forth the effort to understand my emotions and my needs.
Austen may not have known the many distractions or modern problems we face today when it comes to fighting for emotional balance, but her wisdom is no less helpful. Operating in extremes is rarely ever the best course of action. Accepting your temperament yet challenging yourself to step outside of what feels innate is a powerful thing. I’m glad Austen has provided such delightful reads that help show us how.
Photo Credit: Bench Accounting