What is Catharsis?

Leonard planned the funeral when his mother passed away. Near the end, there was this moment at the crematorium where he was assigned to push the button that initiated the furnace that would torch his mother’s corpse turning it from flesh and bones to ash. 

At that moment, all he could think about was the button and whether it was real. Does it actually do anything or was it all a show for his relatives all of which were standing behind him… sobbing. Leonard was not sobbing. He looked at his father, who was weeping quietly in his wheelchair. He looked at his aunt who was breaking down into the chest of her husband. Friends and family all gathered to watch him push this button. They were all in a different state of grief. So he took a deep breath and he did it. He pushed the button.

The crematory initiated. His mother’s coffin disappeared behind the oven’s door. A blind to the window looking into the crematorium was lowered. The show ended. Leonard and the rest of his family returned home. He will never see his mother’s face again. 

A month later, Leonard goes on a date with a former co-worker of his, Sarah. She wanted to see this academy award nominated movie. Dramas were not Leonard’s thing, but he was willing to compromise. He’ll get to pick the movie next time. They bought tickets and popcorn and Leonard held Sarah’s hand as the movie started. 

At the one hour twenty two minute mark, Leonard clenched his teeth and pursed his lips. He even placed his finger up against his mouth. This was unusual. He didn’t usually cry in movies. But here he was… 

On the screen was a hospital scene. The adult children were looking down at their dying mother as she told them all about her regrets. The tragedies of her life. Her missed opportunities. Her unrequited love. She tells them of how she had let them down. How she wished she could have been a better mother to them. How she wanted to be a better listener. It was all too late. 

As the first drop of tears left Leonard’s eyes, an image flashed in his mind. The button. While the rest of his family had been sobbing, he was stoic. Now, in the theater… the floodgates opened. 

What Leonard was experiencing as he sat there holding his date in one hand and keeping himself from crying out loud with his other, is catharsis. 

Catharsis is the process in which we release our pent-up emotions. Some define it as a purification or purgation of emotions as though it is some sort of cleansing. It’s as though we have poured Drain-O through our response system, unclogging the months and years of built-up feelings, so it can function properly again. 

Works of literature, television, cinema, and music that are deemed cathartic are often praised for being good for the human soul. It is often seen as therapeutic, as many of us like Leonard have repressed memories that we have not properly come to terms with. In this way, the artform allows us to “let it all out.” 

While Leonard had certainly felt sad that his mother had died. He was immediately tasked with coordinating her funeral. He had to call friends and family members and fulfill all his mother’s wishes. Letting it out then simply wasn’t a priority. There was no time for it. And so it goes with many of our own emotions. 

After the adrenaline of a car accident, we are immediately faced with dealing with insurance and maintenance. After losing our jobs, we are immediately faced with the pressure to get a new one. And on it goes with every emotional experience, we are often expected to respond with another action and rarely are we offered the luxury of time to assess what we’ve just been through. These moments afterward, can often compound in dangerous ways as we bury the feelings or deny them. We hold them tight and pretend like they aren’t there. We stuff them into a compartment in the back of our brain like a messy miscellaneous drawer. 

There is no time to clean that drawer. How selfish would it be… especially when we know what’s in there can’t be changed. No amount of crying will bring Leonard’s mother back, so why bother? Especially now that he had so much to deal with. Real life comes rushing back. Where was he supposed to find time to cry? In the morning before work? While brushing his teeth at night? No… there’s simply no time to be emotional about that stuff. There is no point. 

If this is the case, emotions can erupt at inopportune times. That is why people break down at the office. This is why we see people sobbing in the milk aisle as the sudden memory of a brand of milk triggers something about a long lost cat. 

What cathartic work can do is allow us to unselfishly release these emotions in a controlled environment. To experience what the characters in the story is experiencing as opposed to ones of our own, we are given a separation. We are allowed to feel the feelings without having to dig within ourselves. Leonard could cry about the dying mom on screen and not have to think directly about his own. It is true that when it comes to these deep seeded emotions, it’s often easier to feel someone else’s. 

As Leonard and Sarah leave the theater, they give each other a hug and a kiss. She tells him how much she enjoyed the movie. He tells her about the hospital scene. She listens quietly as Leonard talked, he feels a weight lifted from him. The conversation about the movie transitions to his mother and how they have grown apart in the last few years. He told her about how honoured he was that she wanted him to manage her final wishes. He wished there was a way he could have told her that. Sarah held Leonard’s arm as they walked towards the bus station. She looked forward to the movie he’ll pick next time. 

Was there a piece of art that made you feel cathartic? Let me know in the comments below. For more videos about writing and the creative process, please subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s