Those of Us Who Live for Emotion

Everyone in this world lives with emotion (well, maybe the psychopaths don’t, but most everyone else does). We laugh, we cry, we feel anger and despair, and for the most part, we learn as young adults to handle these emotions, to live with them, and – to one extent or another – integrate them into our lives in a way that doesn’t (usually) override our ability to function as human beings.

But not everyone truly feels emotions the same way. Some of us fall more into the logical spectrum, whilst others are run by their emotions, making decisions based entirely on ‘feel’, ‘gut reactions’ or instincts. And, of course, some of us find ways to defend ourselves from emotion, because we’ve been so deeply affected in the past.

Having worked in the same place for the past ten years, most of the people I know are of course work colleagues. I know many of them well, and most of them well enough to know – to some degree – what kind of an emotional person they are. There are private people and people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but you can usually tell what kind of an emotional person someone is by the way they express themselves, the emotions they choose to show (or that they can’t control), and the way in which their decision-making process is influenced.

It’s likely you know people like this, too. Think of all the people you daily say “how’s it going” to. Then think about the ones that, without fail, will always answer “fine” – whether they’re fine or not. Then think about the ones that are actually more truthful – that will tell you when things aren’t fine.

There’s no right or wrong way to be, of course – these are just people at different points on the emotional spectrum. Personally I fall into the former category, but I know plenty of people who will gladly share their whims and woes if asked. An easy mistake to make with this, however, is to assume that those people who don’t easily show their emotions simply don’t feel them as strongly – or at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Using myself as an example, it’s been a really long time since I could say I’ve truly felt any deep emotion of any kind – joy or despair, laughing or crying, these things kind of just don’t happen to me. I tend to live life day in and day out by just sort of moving from task to task and place to place, making decisions in the moment based on whatever seems right at the time. If you were to ask me how I felt and I were to answer truthfully, the answer would probably actually just be, “I don’t really know.”

Of course, a large part of this is probably my bipolar medication, which is, well, literally supposed to diminish the extremes of emotion I feel day to day. Prior to being medicated, I do remember times of uncontainable rage, pits of black despair, mountains of eagerness to work, and bouts of inexplicable tears. But even then, these were the rarer instances, and most of the time I wouldn’t allow myself to truly feel anything.

And I think this is a telling perspective, in some ways. I think there are some of us who actually feel so deeply that we deliberately protect ourselves from such emotion, by either avoiding things that make us feel deeply, or simply not letting it in at all. This can be a positive thing, to some arguable extent (I’ve never cried at a funeral), but it can also be detrimental: when discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests with others, I can see how worked up they get about it, how deeply, deeply hurt they are by the injustices suffered by black communities across the country. And whilst I can inarguably see just how terrible things really are, it doesn’t make me as sad or angry inside because I just can’t allow myself to be hurt so deeply. I sort of wish it did, but I don’t know how.

Sometimes I envy people who can simply allow themselves to feel. When presented with those things in life that absolutely should trigger deep emotions (deaths, births, successes and failures, tragedies and triumphs), I kind of just … don’t feel anything. I can look at the event and think that it’s good, or bad, or whatever, but I don’t really deeply feel it, and … it makes me sad, but (of course) not really enough.

There is one thing that this lack of deep emotion does for me, though, and it’s that it allows me to understand conflicting perspectives in a way that I often see others to struggle with. Take something very simple but very relevant: Trump supporters. Most of the people I know are pretty liberal, and many of them simply cannot fathom how anyone could still support someone like Donald Trump after the toxicity, outright lies and falsehoods, and total lack of care that have so far defined his presidency. Yet for me, despite not agreeing with these people, I find myself in a position where I can actually understand some of their rhetoric, their mentality and their decisions. Because I’m not clouded by my own emotions (most of the time), I can see others’, and understand (to some degree) why they feel they way they do.

In the end, although I envy those who feel deeply, I don’t think I’d trade it for how I am already; I like being able to identify with and understand a multiple of perspectives, even if it means that the true depth of others’ feelings fall into more of an intellectual and logical empathy than a true “I feel what you feel” kind of thing. It allows me to get along with more people than I might otherwise be able to, and of course, it means I very rarely feel deeply enough to hate.

Of course, the reverse is that I rarely feel deeply enough to love, either … and that hurts.

How do you approach emotion? Are you a feeler, or a thinker? And do you find you have to feel what someone else does to empathize with them, or can you empathize from a logical perspective?

The Isolationism of Depression

I’m sitting in a brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. People bustle around me, eating, drinking, talking and laughing, and here I am in the middle of it, ignoring it all. I have noise-canceling headphones in, and the most I hear is a faint whisper of spoken word, the slightest hint of movement out of the corner of my eye, and the distraction of someone jostling me as they try to get by. Otherwise, I’m in a world of my own, oblivious to the people around me, focused on the music in my ears and the screen in my eyes.

In many ways, this is a perfect analogy for depression. I know there are things going on in the world around me, but I can’t connect to them. I know there are people who might be watching me, trying to talk to me, but I can’t pay attention. I don’t hear anything but my own focus, don’t see anything but myself. In the same way that the sounds around me are muted and distant, so are the feelings of people around me, and even the brightness of the day is somehow more subdued than it used to be.

Depression is very isolationist. It really doesn’t want me to interact with people, or do my job, or pay attention to my family. All depression really wants is to escape into a lost, solitary world, a place where no one sees me, and I don’t have to see them. Where no one hears me, and I can’t hear them.

This is a place I’m intimately familiar with. I’ve often felt huddled in a corner, looking out on the world from a place of dark loneliness; I frequently lapse into periods of nonexistence, where I’m not certain if I’m dreaming or not, if I’m in bed or at work. When depression steals over me, it mutes the whole world in both color and sound, and it’s all I can do to stay cognizant enough to make it from place to place, from moment to moment, until I finally get to retreat into the soft warm covers of my bed once more.

I’ve been told I get very self-centered when I get depressed. I think this is probably accurate; it’s difficult to assess others’ problems or empathize with their troubles when nothing seems to matter. When the darkness creeps over me, I just stop caring about anyone else. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct; perhaps I’m just trying to stay sane enough to live the day out. The same is true of duties and responsibilities; I’m having a really hard time focusing at work, convincing myself that any of it matters at all. I want nothing more than to go home, go to sleep.

Sometimes depression is a deep, overriding despair. These are the times when I can’t even get out of bed, never mind take a shower, or brush my teeth, or make it to work on time. This is when the world is black, I can’t see past my own feet, and everything is spiraling out of control to a point where there seems no way out.

Other times, however, depression is a kind of blank limbo, neither feeling nor unfeeling. I do things as though nothing were wrong, going through the motions of an otherwise normal day, but there’s no connection internally; no meaning to any of it. Do I speak up at that meeting or not? It really doesn’t matter. Do I go shopping after work? Who cares? Should I watch a movie or fall asleep? Same difference.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I haven’t written more of The Redemption of Erâth in a good few weeks. I haven’t written more music. I haven’t done … well, anything, really. I just keep plodding on, step after step, day after day, getting up and going back to bed with nothing in between. Leaving the house, going to work, having dinner with friends … all of it, nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.

I hate losing touch with reality like this. I don’t want to just go through the motions. In fact, I think I’d rather be utterly incapacitated with despair than well enough to do things, but ill enough for it to all mean nothing. I’d rather feel something than nothing, even if that something is misery.

Mostly, though, I’d rather just sleep the day away. Then I wouldn’t have to sit in this brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. Then I could just be on my own, in my little isolationist bubble, and feel nothing.

The night isn’t far away.

Wearing White Shoes

This post discusses subjects such as racism and misogyny.
If this triggers you … you probably ought to keep reading.

I read an article last week published in the New York Times by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine. With the provocative title of I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked., she discusses her experiences as a black woman traveling for work and observing frequent – and yet often unintentional – racial bias against her from white men. She recounts one instance in which two white men cut in front of her in line, only for one to comment to the other, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” Another in which a group of white men again try to cut in line, and juxtaposes the actual response of both passengers and crew with the reader’s imagined response had that same group of men been women, or black.

Her article is well-written, thoughtful, and, I suspect, more carefully and deliberately worded than anything I could hope to achieve. Or would need to.

You see, I had never heard of Claudia Rankine. In fact, I originally started this article slightly differently: “… a poet named Claudia Rankine …” was how I was going to introduce her to my readers. I might have even published this post with this phrasing, had I not wanted to know if she had a doctorate or not. A very short Google search revealed more of you probably know of her than don’t. And after having read one essay of hers in the New York Times and spent all of three minutes looking her up, I’ve come to start to realize the extent of my whiteness. I probably will never fully grasp it.

… white privilege is … the simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color.

You see, the very fact that I’ve never heard of a prize-winning, Yale-teaching poet is itself an aspect of this whiteness. Had she been white, or a man, might I have heard her name a little louder? Might I have inadvertently paid more attention?

Moreover, the fact that I can write and publish my own thoughts on prejudice without fearing insult or injury to my readers is symptomatic of the same thing. As I read Rankine’s article, it occurred to me that she was able to craft her language in such a way that sold a message – and sold it well – without once making me feel guilty – and therefore more likely to disengage. Engaged readers are the key to spreading a message, and I suspect – as she may do – that the New York Times has a lot of white readers.

Of note – although I didn’t spend more than about twenty minutes looking into it, I couldn’t find a demographic split for the New York Times by race; gender, income, age … but not race.

In a dextrous and subtle way, Rankine was able to open my eyes a little more to just what being black means – and to the fact that they’ll never really be fully open. In doing so, she helped me to recognize the way in which my own behaviors – both learned from and encouraged by (typically white) others – are affected by the simple fact that I’m white.

It also made me want to consider my own position on disparity and privilege, because as a white male it’s not something I often think about. My thoughts here are in no particular way well-educated, backed by research or experience, but they’re still my thoughts, so here goes.

Actually, back up a second. Read that last paragraph again.

What if I were black? How might readers’ opinion of my lack of evidence be different?

I believe I’m starting to understand that this is really what white privilege is. The simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color. I just don’t have to worry.

But to really get it, to understand, it takes a good deal of empathy, and it’s incredibly hard to empathize with a feeling so alien that to you, it doesn’t even make sense. How can I ever understand what it’s like to live every waking moment being first and foremost judged by my skin color? How can I comprehend the conflict of wondering if my successes are going to be judged as leniency for the sake of political correctness, my failures as expected because I’m black?

I want to try something for a moment, and I’d like you to try it with me. I’d like you to close your eyes, clear your mind, and try to remember the scariest, most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to you personally. Try to picture it, remember it, and let that old feeling flow through you. It might not be comfortable, but hold on to that thought.

Got it?

What was it? Was it something physically harmful, like a car crash? Was it a painful accident you thought you might not recover from? Or was it a threat from another person – explicit or otherwise?

The Italian Dolomites, where my ten-year-old brain thought it was going to die.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

My answer came to me easily: climbing in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, hanging on to a rope and nearly falling off a cliff. I’ll never forget just how close I felt to death – the surge of adrenaline, the churn of my stomach, the powdery dryness of my hands.

This experience reeks of privilege, when I think about it. The privilege of money. The privilege of travel. The privilege of being able to have such an experience in the first place. And the odds are, if I weren’t white, I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

But what about you, reader? If you’re black, or asian, or female … what was your most terrifying experience? I wonder if it involves someone threatening or hurting you for your perceived identity – your appearance, as it were.

Here’s the thing: I wonder if segregation might almost be impossibly connected to how humans perceive each other. It’s really, really difficult to comprehend that we share the planet with eight billion other individuals, without finding some way to distinguish between them. The first, simplest way is gender – penis or vagina, two choices. Suddenly you’ve just eliminated half the world as people you have to identify with. Next up – skin color. Man, it’s so easy to just ignore everyone who isn’t the same color as me

Human society is built on these premises – despite promises of equality for all, humans are not all equal. There are rich humans, poor humans, white and black humans, gay humans and bisexual humans and hip-hop humans and death metal humans. We pretty much have to break down society into digestible numbers in order to have one at all.

The problem, perhaps, arises when one group begins to dominate the others. When men dominate women, white people dominate black people; even able-bodied people dominating disabled people. To truly live in a fair and equal world, we need to understand that we are different – but that those differences can’t continue to be leveraged to control or manipulate our positions in society.

There have been times when I, as a white male, have walked through predominantly non-white neighborhoods and felt afraid. I felt out of place, a minority, and in danger because of the color of my skin. I’ve experienced a little taste of this. But I knew that I’d soon be in a place where I would certainly feel much safer: somewhere surrounded by white people.

But this little taste helps me understand that some people in the world feel that way everywhere. I get a little scared when I get pulled over by a cop. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be black and get pulled over by a cop. I get a little scared walking to my car at night. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be a woman walking to her car at night. My female colleagues carry their keys between their fingers every night, and we don’t even work in (to me) a particularly unsafe area.

How do we teach our children to understand each other?
Photo by Bess Hamiti on Pexels.com

When we teach children about empathy, we often tell them to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. But I don’t know if I’m terribly fond of that analogy; the only shoes that really fit you are yours. Instead, I think we should teach children to ask questions: why does this person feel this way? What might make me feel the same? And most importantly, how can I tell them that whilst I can’t know how they feel, I understand that they do.

At the end of Rankine’s New York Times article, it struck me that, in writing about her experiences with confronting racial bias, she didn’t really come to a conclusion as to what could be done to solve it. I wondered if she’d had to edit it for length, or if she simply didn’t have a solution.

But now it dawns on me that perhaps there isn’t a fix. Perhaps society isn’t broken, just … off-balance. I once witnessed gender bias first hand at work. Afterward, I was talking to the woman who had been essentially dismissed by a male colleague and she voiced her frustration about it.

I don’t know why she thought to share it with me specifically; perhaps she needed to vent, or perhaps she thought she could trust me. But when she was done, I realized that as she’d been speaking, I’d already begun building defenses for our male colleague. I’d started thinking up reasons other than gender bias for his behavior. And somehow in a moment I realized that none of that mattered, because she still felt slighted as a woman. He could have had the best intentions in the world for interrupting and dismissing her, but he was only able to do it at all because he was a man.

So I just said, “That must really suck.”

I realize it isn’t terribly eloquent, but I’ll never forget her reaction: all she said was, “Thank you.”

Empathy isn’t about feeling the same as someone else; it’s about acknowledging that they feel that way in the first place. It’s about understanding your part in how they feel, intenional or otherwise. I believe empathy is a sorely-needed key to unraveling racial, gender, and all other forms of bias, because it allows to realize that understanding others comes not from shared experiences, but from shared emotions.

Of course, none of this changes who I am. I’m still a middle-class white male in rural northern New Jersey, and I will continue to benefit from that identity for the rest of my life. I will benefit from it not because I want to, but because society will offer me help in ways that it simply doesn’t to others. I will get fewer speeding tickets; I will make more money; I will never wonder if I was endorsed for or denied a promotion because I’m not white. All of this will happen whether I ask for it or not, unless we start to recognize what equality really means.

Equality does not mean women should be paid more because they are women; it means they shouldn’t be paid less for equal work. Equality does not mean colleges accepting lower grades for minorities to boost their campus diversity; it means accepting students based on the merits of their work and individuality, and not their skin color.

I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a truly equal world. I doubt I can do a whole lot to change that. But if I can recognize my own biases and privileges, and not shy away from it under the guise of white guilt, then at least I can understand my part in the world’s inequality – and maybe make the world better for just a few people.