[lit-ideas] Talking about emotions

  • From: Eric Dean <ecdean99@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 5 Oct 2007 02:40:11 +0000

Andy writes: "I'm extremely sorry for your loss Eric.  Emotional problems hit 
anyone, up to and including the highest rungs of governments.  I'm coming away 
from your experience thinking that the only thing that's truly ours is our 
emotions and our feelings.  We share words, we share thoughts, we share ideas, 
but we can't share emotions.  Only we ourselves can feel our emotions and 
feelings.  Ironically, that's the one area we all shun, running instead toward 
the collective, the word.  I wonder if the desire to outrun emotions and 
feelings underlies collective amnesia (Gore Vidal's the United States of 
Amnesia, but certainly it's not just us).  It certainly underlies all the 
conflict of the world.  We can't deal with our emotions/feelings, but we can 
dump them on another, as your fiance's ex-husband did, and as every and all 
fight, from biggest to smallest, including invasions, has done." Thank you, 
Andy.   I wrote that piece yesterday as part of something I'm trying to do 
generally these days, figure out how to talk in public about emotional things 
without sliding into either demagoguery or maudlin public displays of emotion.  
I do so, though, in part because I am convinced it is not entirely right that 
"only we ourselves can feel our emotions and feelings."  
Certainly there is a very important sense in which that is right: if I cut 
myself no one else feels the pain of that wound.  I believe, however, that we 
*do* experience one another's emotions in some important if intractably 
ambiguous and often tragically limited ways.  The fact that our experience of 
each other's emotions *is* incomplete, subject to gross error, and intractably 
ambiguous makes that experience both extremely difficult to talk about and 
anxiety-provoking.  None of those characteristics, though, mean it is false 
that we have such experiences. A small example of the applicability of this.  
In my most recent position, the one I'm leaving as I move from Phoenix to 
Washington, I ran into several situations where we all knew what needed to be 
done to fix something about how our business worked, were all capable of doing 
our parts to fix it and understood our parts, agreed that it was important, but 
still didn't do it.  
I, the head computer guy, the one whose job is to do the supposedly hard 
engineering things to make the company's systems run well, would find myself 
pointing out to my peers and subordinates that the problems we were having were 
not intellectual problems.  There were no objective impediments.  There were 
only emotional impediments.  
In these situations it seemed to me that we were each afraid of the consequence 
of changing even things that were manifestly broken and as a group we were 
unable to find a way to overcome our individual fears.  There were lots of 
cases where we did get things done -- that's why Aetna just bought us for $535 
million -- but the cases where we didn't were very instructive.  They were 
clearly emotional, not intellectual problems.  
It seemed to me that among the things that happened was that people would feel 
how others felt.  The most obvious and destructive example was when one person 
became afraid, others who might not have been afraid before would become afraid 
too, and then would begin finding all the reasons they should be afraid.  The 
reverse happened as well, people who had the courage to assert their belief 
that a change might be for the better, and who had the stamina to endure the 
both self-inflicted and group-inflicted sense that they might be pollyannas, 
they would gradually find others feeling and acting the same way.
I think the reality is that we do feel each others' emotions, though in 
attenuated, incomplete, ambiguous and often inaccurate ways, and how we react 
to each others' emotions does indeed have a lot to do with what happens, in 
part because our reasoning selves do not always recognize what's going on, as 
in the case of the person who's not frightened but encounters another who is 
and then begins searching for (and finding) putatively rational reasons for 
their fear.  That's among the reasons I think it's worth trying to find a 
constructive and productive way to talk about emotional things in public, even 
though doing so is often awkward.
Anyway, thanks again for your kind words.
Best regards to one and all,
Eric Dean
Phoenix --> Rockford

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