Exclusions abound in this world. Consider the dog, a creature often excluded from the affairs of man. They wait, tied outside, while their owners buy coffee, sit and read books, shop, etc. Dogs are often associated in speech with disrespect (whether accurately or not) , as in “I’ve been working like a dog,” “He treats me like a dog,” or “The world is going to the dogs.” Even though they enjoy a great deal more affection and attention from owners these days, they are still creatures of comparatively low station – perhaps moreso because they often cower before humans – that are only occasionally honored for utilitarian value. This is so even though some of the dogs I’ve seen do credit to their masters. As Mark Twain said, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” Judging by the sign at right, dogs may be smarter, too!
Speaking of dogs — have you ever had someone say, “We can talk about that if you’ll agree not to get emotional” (or more precisely, “all” emotional)? Talk about an exclusionary structure! Emotions are the dogs of human discourse. “You can come in, but don’t bring that dog (your emotions)!” Think about how many times that restriction is applied to the affairs of everyday life. About the only place “getting all emotional” receives any respect is in the shrink’s office. Oh, and in the sports arena.
Consider whether perhaps there’s some reparation and repatriation due the outcast of human conversation known as emotions.
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I reconnected with an old friend the other day, one I hadn’t heard from in several years. As is often the case, distance and life’s circumstances had broken the bond of commonality. In earlier times, our friendship involved frequent and serious discussions held in good faith about a lot of life’s issues – politics, economics, education, children, church and religion in general, science, etc., — and often they went on for hours in generally healthy directions, incorporated a great deal of agreement or concurrence, involved sporadic rabbit trails, and sometimes got really earnest. To my recollection, there was never anger, even in the midst of disagreement. But now I wonder.
Our recent resumption of dialog began with random possibilities for conversation when the following add-on suddenly lurched to the top: “… that is, if we promise to discuss it without emotion ….” His comment hung like the poised blade of a guillotine, ready to terminate our exchange. I restrained the immediate impulse to ask, “Why did you say that? Is there something more you wish to say, or is this merely an arbitrary prohibition?” More to the point: “What is wrong with emotions?”
But his statement seemed determined – his underlying implication being that “emotions” have no valid place in human discourse. That’s often the case with conversation, isn’t it? People want to banish or exclude emotion and will often describe third parties as “too emotional,” especially when they disagree. Emotional expression, other than saying something acceptably funny, is often the conversational equivalent of disclosing a deadly disease, as hilariously lampooned in Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoon entitled “Canine Faux Pas.” Larson’s cartoon shows a bunch of upright dogs at a party, all with drinks in their hands and — all but one — shocked looks on their faces, when the one shouts to another over the noise of the party, something like, “My vet told me today I have worms!” A sure turn-off, the canine equivalent of HIV.
In human conversations, the “emotional” tag is inextricably tied to “reaction,” and that perception strengthens with every repetition like a snowball gaining mass as it rolls downhill. We want to kick emotions out the door as quickly as possible. Reactions are seldom welcome, unless in response to a physical emergency, at which point they are not only welcomed but encouraged. Otherwise, though, you can check ‘em at the door because they are second-class citizens, the stuff of unsophisticated harshness, raw, unpolished society, the “lower classes.” Even when someone asks you for your reaction, as in “What’s your reaction to today’s news that …?” If you give them something they weren’t expecting, you may get blamed with “overreacting” or “getting all emotional” even if your response was measured and calm. Why? Is it, perhaps, because we fear that we’ll be touched by the emotion, don’t know how to cope with it appropriately, or will be unable to defend against it?
What responses fall within the definition of “emotional”? And what emotions, if any, are acceptable in culture? Easy ones come to mind. While it’s perfectly acceptable to cry at a wedding or funeral, an award ceremony, or upon receipt of sad news, it’s far less acceptable to cry when someone makes a snide remark to you, when your boss or spouse is unnecessarily blunt. Likewise, it’s perfectly acceptable to yell things, even stupid things, at a sporting event, but not so where a disagreement arises, even though both are expressions of emotions and may convey no more than the speaker’s passion on a certain issue. One just “should not yell” when in conversation; the unspoken assumption is that one must be contained at all times.
But passions [here, not to be confused with a romantic or sexual context] and emotions are sometimes not so easily identified or separated, and neither should be dismissed out of hand as being inherently disqualified. After all, we want our employees, board members, players and coaches, students, et al., to be passionate about our team, our products and services, our organization, our accomplishments, etc., but when it comes to passionate expressions in the discussion, it’s usually “Katy, bar the door!” Why are we so eternally ill-at-ease with another’s emotions and passions? Are the two related? Can one be distinguished from the other in the midst of conversation, and if so, how? Are we reasonable in expecting others to abide by the arbitrary fiat that an emotional or passionate tone is not allowed into civilized conversation? Can one have her/his say without being preempted or prohibited for bringing an important human element to the conversation, that of emotion or passion? Don’t we all come packaged or hard-wired with emotions that, to varying degrees and according to our personalities, convey something important about who we are, how we feel, and what we stand for?
Some of the most articulate and memorable quotes down through history have been passionate, emotional statements. Look at Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!”; Nathan Hale’s “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country!”; Abraham Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, about two minutes in length. All are laced with raw emotion formed in the crucible of war or the contemplation of it, all three statements issued by sane men and calculated to instill courage in the listener, or at least express the urgency of the moment. When Admiral Farragut yelled “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” as his fleet momentarily flinched in the face of mortal danger upon sailing into Mobile Bay in 1864, he issued a stirring call to action. Would you remember it – more important, would his men have appropriately acted – had he calmly said, “You know, I’ve been thinking that perhaps we should not worry so much about the torpedoes and just keep forging ahead”? Of course not! Totally inane, and insane, bereft of any power.
Our ability to communicate – whether expressed in words, gestures, art or music – often embodies the need to express powerful, eloquent and important messages that can penetrate the very essence of the moment. Emotions and passion are able to cut through the fog and get down to reality, reducing much fumbling verbiage to a few concise words or phrases that pierce the veil. We need not fear, and ought not forbid, expressions of emotion and passion when used within reasonable constraints and amenable circumstances. Once we overcome the knee-jerk wish to suppress them, we often are able to learn, to hear, to feel, to respond and even to sympathize or empathize with the feelings of urgency, hurt, anger, despair, jubilation, inspiration, admonition, or encouragement we hear. Instead of denying the privilege, we should embrace and extend openness to the expression of raw emotion — one of the great gifts of human creativity.
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© September, 2010, by Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.