Where Is the I in Me? Emotions, Self and Soul

Where Is the I in Me? Emotions, Self and Soul October 16, 2014

A child falls down and begins screaming. It’s common. You did it as a child. I did it.

What happens next?

For me, my parents said, “Get up off the floor! Boys don’t cry!”

When this happens at an upscale pre-school nearby, I’m more likely to hear, “You feel sad!” Or, “That’s frustrating, isn’t it?” Or, “You’re so angry!”

What’s the difference between the two parental responses?

Fact is, any time I cried as a child, I got the same response: “Boys don’t cry.”

Consequently, I learned to suppress my emotions rather than expressing them.

That child outside the pre-school, on the other hand, is being taught the difference between anger and sadness and frustration and fear and embarrassment. That child is developing a palate of emotions with nuance. That child is developing “emotional intelligence.”

Kids treated as I was learn that emotions need to be suppressed. We learn “men don’t do that.” We learn “women are hysterical.”

And so the cliches go, ‘round and around.

And so does the drinking and drugs and physical violence and abuse that come as a consequence of the suppression of emotion.

Now, allow me to add that my parents were preparing me for the world that they lived in: working class people learn to be very careful about emotion. You can’t let the boss see your emotion.

My father was in the Boiler Makers Union. You don’t cry among your fellow Boiler Makers. And you don’t get angry when the boss yells at you.

We were also farmers, and farmers in traditional communities aren’t allowed to get angry either. You can’t show anger when the bank won’t give you a loan . . . and on and on. It’s a life of oppression and suppression in which a show of emotion can be interpreted as dangerous.

That’s the world I was prepared for. Everyone has a story.

We call the result “stable.” But at what cost to both the individual and society?

Professor George Rowan did a study called “A Multicultural Investigation of Masculinity Ideology and Alexithymia.” It wasn’t a best seller, but the study tells us what we already have intuited: In many social groups, men are afraid to express emotion, especially in the presence of other men.

“Alexitymia” describes the result of this suppression: an inability to describe emotions; an inability to sustain social connections; and an inability to sustain interpersonal relationships.

The result is a socially-created sociopath. The result is a dangerous person created by the desire to live up to the social definition of masculinity.

That pretty well describes the men in my extended family.

Think for a moment about how many—and different—lives you lead. Partner. Friend. Manager. Co-worker. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy . . .

We learn to use different vocabularies in these different niches. We learn to express our emotions differently. In addition, as the dad of two children in the GLBTQ alphabet soup, I know that the gender binary is an inconvenient fiction. Men aren’t from Mars and women from Venus. We come from many planets.

Yes, there are differences in the emotional lives—and the ability to articulate—that can be called gender difference. Still, we have an obligation to try to use our words, no matter what planet we’re from.

The Twentieth Century writer Anais Nin started writing when she was eleven. She continued, obsessively writing of her inner life, for more than sixty years. She said this:

I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles. I weep when I find others play them for me. My real self is unknown . . . I create a myth and a legend, a lie, a fairy tale, a magical world, and one that collapses every day . . .

It isn’t that Nin had some super-complex emotional life. Or that she was mentally ill. Rather, she had the tenacity to pursue her many selves to the essence of the self. Much like the Buddha. And, like the Buddha, she discovered there isn’t one.

There is no constant self. The evidence is right before our eyes. And right behind them too. What we have instead is an ocean of sensation and reaction. We have emotions, some fleeting, some stable enough to be called moods. These add up to what we call a self. Yet it’s a fiction.

The dangerous and damaging idea behind this insistence on a stable self is what has been called “soul” in the Western tradition. That tradition tells us that the soul is incarnated. Lives in the flesh for a time. Then goes somewhere forever, still constituted as the self that lived on earth. In some traditions the soul is rewarded with heaven or hell. In others the soul blissfully resides . . . well, somewhere.

Such an idea is a dangerous illusion. The only constant is change. And the self and the soul it creates are stories we tell ourselves.

When we figure that out, the Buddha said we are enlightened. Anais Nin put it this way: “I see myself and my life each day differently. What can I say? The facts lie.”

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