"When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted."

I recently discovered Star Trek. Don’t laugh! I have foreign parents who were unable to expose me to such things in a timely manner.

In episode 9 of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and his crew are confronted for the second time by the mysterious “Q,” a member of an apparently omnipotent species that can teleport and manipulate matter and energy in ways that humans cannot. This time, as last time, Q decides to test the crew of the Enterprise, toying with them like playthings. After transporting everyone but the Captain to the surface of an unknown planet, he challenges them to a game. Lieutenant Tasha Yar boldly confronts Q, and he punishes her by suddenly making her disappear. He explains to the others that Yar is in a “penalty box” where she is safe for the time being, but the penalty box only has one spot. So if anyone else messes up, they’ll get sent to the penalty box, and Yar will be gone forever.

Captain Picard comforts Lieutenant Yar in her penalty box.
Captain Picard comforts Lieutenant Yar in her penalty box.

As it turns out, the penalty box seems to be located on the bridge of the Enterprise. Seeing Yar, Picard asks what happened.

Yar: It sounds strange…but I’m in a penalty box.

Picard: A penalty box?

Yar: Q’s penalty box. It sounds strange but it definitely isn’t. I know that one more penalty–by anyone–and I’m gone.

Picard: Gone?

Yar [agitated, starting to cry]: Yes, I am gone! It is so frustrating to be controlled like this!

Picard: Lieutenant…Tasha. It’s all right.

Yar: What in the hell am I doing? Crying?

Picard: Don’t worry. There is a new ship’s standing order on the bridge. When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.

Now allow me to make a corny analogy.

A lot of situations we end up in are like Lieutenant Yar’s penalty box. They suck. They’re terrifying. They’re unfair. Maybe, like the penalty box, they’re precipitous; one more misstep, and we’re done: not literally disappeared from the entire universe, perhaps, but fired from a job, flunked out of school, broke, alone. Sometimes we ended up there through no fault of our own, or even–as Yar was doing–while trying to make things better for ourselves or for others. But, stuck in the penalty box, we can’t fully acknowledge that the situation is crappy, and we don’t give ourselves permission to feel crappy about it.

My memory works in a very cyclical way: as time goes on, I think about things that happened during the same season but during a previous year. So now it’s mid-May and I’m remembering finishing college, graduating, packing, and that long, horrible move to the city I (nevertheless) loved then and still do. I have another move ahead of me this summer, so I’m especially thinking about it. Though, this time it’s within the same city and it’s to live with my best friends.

I think about how harsh I was on myself during that whole process, how worked up I’d get, crying about leaving and then crying about crying and probably at some point crying about crying about crying. Crying became such a routine for me last summer that I could’ve kept track of time that way.

For whatever combination of psychological and environmental factors, it seemed like that move was my penalty box. I felt on the edge of something horrible and I couldn’t even imagine what. I felt completely out of control, even though I had, after all, chosen the move. The move was my penalty box and on some fundamental level I didn’t really believe that tears were permitted. I knew that they were, but I couldn’t believe it.

Everyone I know who thinks about this stuff has their ways of trying to explain it. One good friend says, “No feelings about feelings.” Not as a rule, but as an ideal to aspire to: we get to feel sad or angry or afraid or embarrassed or ashamed or jealous, but we should try not to have feelings about the fact that we feel those things. Others just say, “Feel your feelings.” Mental health professionals practicing dialectical behavior therapy try to teach their clients a skill called “radical acceptance”: the ability to recognize that you’re feeling a certain horrible way and to accept it, not as something that’s good or preferable, but as something that, at least for now, just is.

The acceptance of feelings seems to be harder for many people than the acceptance of situations. I’ve adapted quickly to situations I’d previously thought would be intolerable, but I do not adapt quickly to my own emotions. It’s not just the emotions that feel bad; it’s the meta-emotions that do the most damage. Feelings about feelings.

There is no easy way out of this. There’s no convenient self-help trick that’ll stop the feelings about feelings. There is no Stop Hating Yourself For Being Sad In Five Easy Steps!. I wish there were.

But sometimes there are skills or coping mechanisms or even phrases from television shows that help.

When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.


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"When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted."

19 thoughts on “"When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted."

  1. 1

    Happy you’ve discovered Star Trek. There really are number of surprisingly thoughtful episodes. The show seems in many cases to push a rather humanist message. I also wonder how much of Patrick Stewart rubbed off on his character.

    May the force be with you.

      1. TOS was quite good (it had to be to start the whole phenomenon), though you have to keep in mind that it was made in the 60s at times suffers from the contemporaneous sexism. In terms of racism, it was pretty cutting edge and actually had the first televised interracial kiss between Capt. Kirk and Uhura. Quality varies widely between episodes, but many have moving and insightful humanist and especially anti-war messages. First and second seasons are generally considered best. By the third one they were running out of network support.

        1. Actually, technically, another show beat them by eight months, but that show wasn’t syndicated or as widely seen as the Star Trek episode was. For almost that entire generation Star Trek was the first.

          One thing to keep in mind is that Gene Roddenberry did try to cast Majel (soon to be Roddenberry) as “Number One” and she’s in the pilot. But, the producers claimed television audiences wouldn’t accept it. Eventually he compromised on Leonard Nimoy, moving up from Science Officer to First Mate.

          Miri, Majel Roddenberry has been involved in Star Trek all the way up to her death. She had multiple roles on TOS, with her titular televised role of Yeoman Rand. She was the computer voice on TNG and the amazingly bombastic Mrs. Troi.

  2. 3

    I envy you. You get to watch all those episodes for the first time! The first two seasons have some clunkers as the show is still finding its feet. After that there are some great episodes. “Measure of a Man” is one of the more thought-provoking episodes. At times it may seem a little heavy handed, but I think most of those times a heavy hand was needed.

    I hope you’ll go onto DS9 and Voyager. DS9 is different than Star Trek, but it stays true to Trek’s roots and has a great multi-season story arc. Voyager is more like the original series IMHO. Be sure to also watch the movies (especially Generations and First Contact, but I think you can skip Insurrection and Nemesis) since they’re part of the continuity.

    1. 3.1

      factoid about Measure of a Man: GRRM, yes that GRRM, advised the script writer for that episode to “not hoard your silver bullet”. So she wrote the episode, sent it in, and got hired as a regular writer on TNG.

      So yes, ASOIAF intersects with Star Trek.

  3. 4

    It’s not just the emotions that feel bad; it’s the meta-emotions that do the most damage. Feelings about feelings.

    Ah, that rings really true for me. Well put, thank you.

    My brain is never satisfied to just feel, it has to analyse and assess those feelings against what I somehow decide a person ‘should’ feel, and inevitably I find myself wanting and feel crappy about my feelings.

    Then I make a noise something like ‘blargle’ ,in frustration. The penalty box idea may be more helpful 🙂

  4. 5

    Star Trek (TNG, specifically) is among the best shows ever created. It gets so much better after season 1, even though season 1 is fairly good at times.

    That said, i wanted to comment that much of what you say here resonates with me. There are more times than I can count that I feel on the edge like this. As a person struggling with BPD (which I have been writing a lot about, recently), the ability to accept feelings is something I have been working on most of my life. Sometimes, the feelings i am having feel silly, stupid, or embarrassing. I’m perpetually seeking a safe space to be able to have and experience the feelings I have.

    DBT is something I have read about a lot recently, and I may have to seek a group/individual profession who specializes in it as soon as I am able, because I think it would be highly beneficial. Thanks for writing about this.

  5. 6

    Yeah, Star Trek is just… I hadn’t watched any Trek since I was in grade school, and this spring I watched ALL of TNG in the space of two months. There’s no other show, movie, book, or game that can consistently move me to tears. There’s just so much… hope infused into the entire universe it takes place in, so much faith in the ability of the human race to grow beyond what it is now.

  6. 7

    So much could have been done with Tasha Yar. If Denise Crosby had stayed with the show. We learn a a bit of her backstory in the first season. She’s from a dysfunctional human-populated planed in the Federation Zone that has fallen on hard times where sexual assault is near universal. That’s why the only character she feels comfortable exploring her sexuality with is __________. (spoiler deleted)

    1. 9.1

      The Robin Hood episode was a bit awful though.

      But you got to see Worf say “I am not a merry man!”
      That made the episode for me. But otherwise, I hated Q episodes. Blah.

  7. 10

    I’m more than a little envious, being able to watch Star Trek with fresh eyes would be a real joy for me.

    As an aside, if you’ve never seen it, I can also heartily recommend Babylon 5. Aside from the excellent writing, it’s got the amazing voice of Andreas Katsulas, I’d rank him alongside Patrick Stewart & Christopher Lee as having one of the best voices ever recorded. As an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUbFHOXJaHI

  8. 11

    Season one, episode four: The Enterprise encounters terrifying aliens with strange and barbarous customs. They act just like white people.

    I love this show SO much.

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