Campaigning for the Importance of our Emotions
I’ve had the idea for some time: we tell our own story of how we arrived at our political stance. We listen to the person in our midst tell their story. And we leave it there: no convincing, no demeaning, no self-righteousness. We agree to curiosity, and as part of this deal we may get some new insight, some new understanding. The win-win would be if all the parties involved somehow agree to take three steps back and re-think or re-feel and even evaluate, our own stance.
The premise here is that emotions trump facts, the pun here both obvious and necessary. Emotions, and particularly when we don’t know of their existence, can creep up inside us to control us. They can make us hate and fear, and often act on precisely those emotions we don’t understand or admit. We live in a culture in which we have generally not been helped in the practice of knowing and integrating the shades and textures of the rich variety of our emotions. As such we tend to take positions in life and stand up for them even, without having combed the emotions underpinning them.
The idea of interrupting the hatred that has become so obviously raw and divisive can even seem like an elegant proposition, except that it is harder than hard. All of us can be triggered by insult and hurt, by accusations that in turn trigger our rage — something often lying in wait for some fuel. As much as we might consider ourselves above the fray of emotional chaos, we are all vulnerable and susceptible to emotional attack. Yes, the coronavirus has rendered most of us even more susceptible, but even without a pandemic, the state of our nation has aroused fierce emotions and an incendiary love/hate for the person of the president.
I worry that if we don’t get a handle on how we might be feeding into and helping to fuel the fury between us, we will be part of the quagmire. We’ve likely heard the phrase, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” We have also heard this in terms of our (white people) role of racism in our society: if we are not in some profound way fighting racism and recognizing our own racism, we remain part and parcel of the racism that is.
When we are unaware of our contribution to a given malady we might continue our enabling role without even realizing it. When we are unaware of the deeper conflicts inside us, we may join a particular bandwagon without conscious decision-making or real choosing. We all have reservoirs of fear and fury that can be tapped into. Especially when we start receiving a barrage of demeaning attacks that pass for debates, or sound bites headed right for our fear receptors, we can easily become seduced into a more primal experience of fight or flight. Or instead we can become frozen, unable to think straight, and from here we can move into even greater detachment. We can then become distracted from any possibility of interrupting ourselves to take stock of how our own emotions are being played, or of how we are part of the playing.
In a culture of quick and glib verbalizing, along with the constant input of social media and political correctness, we can sign on to points of view thrust at us. We might of course be aiming high, as in wanting to take the higher ground of curiosity about the “other side” in our political atmosphere. Too often, though, we crash when it comes to practicing what we preach.
One option as I see it, could involve setting up a format to get and give information more indirectly. This could be done through a kind of story-telling, which in turn could allow any of us to be less immediately defensive, or for that matter offensive.
I get it, some people will not want to play, or to take a chance at letting free association allow us to move to more openness. I understand that this can be threatening too, to feel the earth moving beneath our feet with increased uncertainty, that is if we find ourselves becoming more open to point of view divergent from our own, or at least more open to the person/people holding that point of view. Some people, of course, will be too dedicated to and intent on the hating and perhaps even convinced that hatred or violence is the only way.
But, for the rest of us, this may be worth a shot. So, whattaya say, should we start? It’s called, right, “How I got here”. I’ll go first. It seems only fitting, under the circumstances.
Okay, so I was born in Brooklyn. I am Jewish, through being in a Jewish neighborhood, through Hebrew school, some Yiddish, a lot of guilt and humor and chicken soup. There was a bunch of arguing between my parents and I would try to “solve” that, first by getting in the middle and sometimes siding with one parent at a time. When one of my two much older brothers, was mean to me, my mother said “you have to understand” followed by some explanation of how hard life had been for him way back when. “You just have to understand” was in some ways a maneuver to get me not to be angry and to rush into something akin to sympathy.
I wanted to be a psychologist at 11, sensing that “understanding” the difficulties someone else had, could make things less upsetting; clearly this seemed like a way to have some control and be above the upset, so to speak. My best friend Diane and I would play “psychologist” and she would be my patient, following my script as to what her problem was. Each time she “visited” by knocking at my bedroom door, I would magically and logically (at the time so it seemed) give her advice that was curative. I, as a psychologist at 11 could really be above the fray; I could be the decider, the powerhouse of knowledge and technique to make every situation solvable.
My natural proclivity was to be sensitive, easy to feel hurt, and later easy to feel empathy, particularly when the other person was clearly in need. Even when I became a parent, I could relate to the raw vulnerability of a young child, and I came to realize that in some ways I was also giving as I had wanted to receive: it was vicarious and very soothing. I became a social worker out of some of the tendencies mentioned so far. And also, I wanted to be a therapist, I think now, initially at least in part because once upon a time I had felt sure that if I could “just understand”, I could be above the morass that can occur in the midst of heated emotion or emotional chaos.
I wanted to be a good girl, certainly to be seen as one (by my parents first and foremost), and then a good social worker and a good therapist. However, as it came to pass, my work in a residential treatment center took me down hard. There was no way my niceness — if it was there at all — would help me when I was needled and taunted by kids whose own hurt rendered them aching to get back. The helpless rage I felt in turn, was primal and after sharp but short lived urges to quit the field, I set about working on the rage inside me. One day, literally I talked to myself, “Carol, if you feel such intense and vindictive rage, then you must have some rage to begin with. You’re provoked, yes, but only because you have emotions ready to be provoked.” Of course, my own childhood experience of helplessness was being triggered as well.
Who knows where I would have wound up if my hopes of being only good, would have been in some way rewarded instead of turning to dust as my own capacity for spite and fantasies of harming back took hold and demanded to be faced. Having a therapist at the time whose main positive capacity had to do with tolerance of anger, helped me be more gentle towards the darker sides of my own anger. So my looking at my own bad parts had a work out during that time, something that prepared me at least somewhat for the messy feelings evoked in being a mother.
The above is obviously abbreviated and simplistic, certainly if it were to be a whole story line. I also see, through my having at it in this moment, that my wanting to be good, and to take on the role of the defender, added to the formation of my own liberal politics. I identified with the victim, the person who felt helpless, and I identified with the savior, not meaning to imply anything religious. At the same time, I might have gone in a different direction, if my being sick of always being called on to “understand” other people, had risen to the fore of my preoccupations. Perhaps I would have joined the ranks of the “resenters”, the people who see services to others as a sign that they themselves aren’t being valued and appreciated.
What I can see, then, from this talking out loud, is that — politically — my own fury has come out in my passion against the other side. I marched during the war in Vietnam and I see all the years later how un-compassionate I was, verbally or emotionally, towards the American soldiers who returned. I didn’t know them; I didn’t know what drove them — the patriotism or the economic need or the promise of an education. I didn’t know and I didn’t care and now I find that ugly.
In the present, I find the Republican party, particularly as it is represented today, creepy. I don’t recognize its members as fully human. They seem crazy to me, and it can be crazy making to hear, for example, people talk about the right to life when my perception is that they care about the right to life of the fetus only. I worked with families on public assistance and got to know them as people. I saw how hard it was to navigate all of the factors stacked against them. I saw how the history of racism in this country had crippled and maimed some of the more tenuous family solidarity in some of those neighborhoods.
I can’t stand it when the people on welfare, or in prison, or the people who are immigrants are treated like they are not human and have no right to their own dignity. I think it hurts my feeling deeply, in ways up front and personal. And more and more I, increasingly without the shame attached to my being “too sensitive” take it personally. And I feel, “Is there any other way?” And yet, with all this humanizing, is it possible to see Republicans as human too? What a thought.
On the positive side of things, I also saw that with help geared towards authentic appreciation of both needs and of real strengths of actual people, for the most part they could grow. I saw how the work could be healing and refreshing, how it could be a co-creation. Sometimes it was tenuous, touch and go, but there was movement. This, I feel, has been the cornerstone of my faith, my optimism. Aside from my making a terrible pessimist, I have seen that people can change. And I saw as well that I could come through what seemed like impossible grief as well. But writing now, I wonder as to whether I could ever hope to see the other side through a lens of compassion , not through threat and wanting to hurt back, and I don’t know the answer.
I think now that in my own professional life, I was giving and doing in my work what I would have yearned for in my own life. I wasn’t black or Hispanic or on welfare, or for that member the child of Holocaust survivors, but I had had an experience that felt impoverished. I felt guilty about that too, guilty that I had felt wounded. Who was I to feel that, while so many people I met had been so much more brutally assaulted by life. Even though I know comparison is a killer, the tendency is still there, even if discussing this out loud, so to speak, is leaving the space to explore the ins and outs less defensively than has been my wont.
In the present, I see my perceiving of Trump as so threatening as not to seem human to me, as a flaw — a flaw that I’d need some help with, perhaps even from the other team so to speak . As such at this moment I probably am not at all well equipped to talk reasonably or for that matter creatively, with a Trump supporter. That is unless he/she/they would agree to my terms, terms that might protect people on different sides from the dehumanizing that is dispersed far and wide.
In other words, if he/she/they are willing to start out by engaging in “How I got here”, we might stand a chance. We might stand a chance because in talking out loud, without the stated purpose of controlling the other party, we each have the chance to be open to new feelings and thoughts. In addition, when we hear another person’s story, we tend to suspend judgment if we are engaged. We understand motivations, and they matter. We have the opportunity to walk in the other person’s shoes, even if at the start we assume that they would never fit.
So then, if emotions trump facts, it stands to reason to suggest we pay more attention to how emotions can rule us, often without our knowing. I realize there is nothing on any ballot on reforming our “emotions” system. Which is not to deny that many other systems in our country are broken and need fixing. And it is not to suggest that there is room to face only one emergency at a time. It just means that emotions are really important; they allow us to love and to care; they can inform us when our temperature starts rising so we can stop and think over choices that are or that can become real.
However, if we don’t take the integration of emotions to heart — even the ones we do not like that are still part of us — they will continue to color many of our conversations that we assume are rational. This is about making room to lower the emotional temperature, not per se to debate or nowadays insult. Rather the idea would be to create enough space so that we can listen to the stories of another human being. And in the process we could perhaps explore and share our own story line as well.
Conceivably the more we hear our own stories and become more familiar with the roots of our own prejudices, the more we can potentially interrupt some of our own assumptions that we might in fact come to see as destructive. In turn we might be able to develop real honesty about the emotional complexities which we all have: we could see ourselves and each other as more equal than otherwise. We could actually become a developing country, a country in which people are developing their/our emotional fluency! And then, we wouldn’t have to hide behind banners and slogans or leaders we either worship or wind up loving to hate.
This is hope on my part, even though it may sound like pie in the sky. I hope because I have seen people grow, people who seemed buried underneath physical or emotional hardships. And I hope because I have seen growth, however much in fits and starts, in my own life. And so it seems to me that if we connect at all with the phrase “Be the change you want to see in the world” we might do well to start with feelings. Once we begin to get out from under our own enmeshment in false hope or fake alliances and hatreds, we might actually have a chance at thinking more clearly. As we interrupt-with help and support — our own parts in the addiction to hate and blame, perhaps we could even solve a thing or two. This is my story for now, and I may as well stick to it. It feels so much better than sinking into hopelessness.
I do realize that the effort at this point to delve into our own psyche may seem more than a tad indulgent. Looking into our own hate by habit, or hate from being insulted, may seem like leaning into privilege. It may seem so even more in the face of people who are struggling with injustice on a daily basis, and don’t have the time to do much self-reflecting. Even so, odds are that this looking inward is an urgent add on that may just be our most pragmatic option. Those of us stuck in hate or stuck in helpless rage or feelings of helplessness without the rage, can comb what is available to our own consciousness so we can start by being more honest about those emotions.
I am borrowing here from Carl Jung whose own sense of urgency was about people looking inward to find their own deeper emotions — emotions that he saw as likely causing sudden explosions interpersonally or as being projected onto others. Jung, writing in the 1950’s, was then understandably concerned about the prospect of a nuclear war, made possible because of the weapons of mass destruction that had recently become available. Our tendency too often has been to see in other nations an axis of evil while we have seen ourselves as innocent, or as despicable the neighbors in our own country whom we hate by impulse and habit.
Ironically the seeing and talking out loud, to someone we trust, can help us metabolize first our own emotions. Then we have may have the freedom to think and to speak and to listen and to vote more rationally than otherwise. In addition, the more we know about the shadow lands of our own psyche, the greater our chance of recognizing some of the manipulations geared towards keeping all of us divided from each other, and divided also from the deeper truths inside us.
Getting to know our deeper wishes and fears, is at best not a linear process, and as we can see, it is not always present. Sometimes it is fleeting and all too temporary. When we hate, even when we feel that hatred is justifiable and necessary, in today’s world, we can easily lapse into our preferred cable news cycle of politics as our favorite, if compulsive, sporting event.
But back to my side of the story: I admit to feeling the thrill of hating the president. Sometimes I feel the need to laugh at him, and to frolic in the reruns of late-night television that make him look more and more ridiculous. This activity can make me feel temporarily less helpless when mostly I feel the victim of his whims and cuckoo policies regarding his vendetta against the Post Office, or against Dr. Fauci during coronavirus.
Locating my own hatred and the addiction to it, however, pushes me feel less self-righteousness and as such it humbles me, even for a little while. I also know, when I look more deeply at the racial and social and economic divides in our country, that the Trump factor has been lying dormant and ready to implode for years. As such it behooves us to delve deeper at the history of the divides in the present, and deeper into what might conceivably be ways out of them.
So, in other words, I’ll work on me, while extending the invitation to you to come out to play. I confess as part of my revelation also to myself, that the pursuit of depth in the midst of social unrest and threats and accusations abounding, can feel very lonely. At the same time, I know that begging for company is not a direction that works or leads out of misery. I’d like more company here and it is part of what I miss. Parenthetically I’ve had a hard time moving to Colorado from New York, but I realize just today that perhaps more than the geographical, visceral difference, there is for me the felt lack of enough company in either location, in this very tough place.
Some people quip, in relation to the powerful emergence of the Black Live Matter movement, “All lives matter”, and it feels demeaning. At the same time I want to emphasize that our inner lives matter. In fact our inner lives matter as much as any other thing.
It really seems that if we don’t bother to come to know them better— these inner lives of ours — we will doom them to a sorrowful life of their own. And through this life of their own, they will wreak havoc. They will persist in driving hatred, some form of hatred, in all of us.
The Human Climate: Facing the Divisions Inside Us and Between Us (World Dignity Press, 2019)
#shadow #Trump #partisan politics #emotions and politics