Someone very important to me said that Love is just something people say to start and end conversations. I took this to mean that, ultimately, the word has been rendered meaningless, bearing no relation to the curves, valleys, and sinkholes of our shared emotional landscapes. With this revelation I was shocked back into the sense that I had, once again (for this wasn’t the first time), strayed in a dark wood. A ghost with no language, my mouth full of acerbic, cerulean sky.
I was the kind of person from a family whose members dutifully uttered “I love yous” at the end of each phone call, at each parting. And while, perhaps, the verbal act itself did little to express the truth of our feelings, I intuited that the word coded feelings of familiarity. A secret wink, letting me know that, somehow, and in spite of my flaws, I belonged among them. I don’t know if I understood their meaning accurately. In lieu of the difficult task of actually exploring how I felt, I thus came to rely on furtive tokens, on symbols, that I interpreted according to some bizarre logic as a reassurance of safety. Perhaps I even took the loneliness for what it was, at least, for me: a normal state of being.
So much so, that on into adulthood, I find myself at a loss when it comes to identifying my emotions, understanding them, or being able to communicate them in any meaningful way. They seem distant to me, at times, and then, from nowhere they consume me like contagion. There seems to be no continuity. What I do know is that when I allow them to overtake me, nothing good results. I therefore mostly avoid them whenever possible, and, like my parents, carry on with my routines as a means of locating myself in the world, in my body. I wake, I bathe, make coffee—another one—and dress myself, packing some little victuals to look forward to around mid-morning in between emails and meetings. I gaze out the window and see a brilliant steel sun on the northern water and yearn for the borderlands far to the south. I can see myself dressed in black and silver, peering out to blue from within the confines of an old adobe structure. I am alone, and then—I dissolve.
Water washes over me in an alluvial plain, a cyclical study in red and tan and grey. The banks flood, the silt settles. Bits of detritus, branches, waste. One day I dry in the sun and become a desert, a stone, a sheer cliff, a red rock canyon, a deep slit on the dry plain where thunderstorms wash out dead spirits in the summer afternoons, again.
Shift of focus—I am upright, human, somehow. The paths I trace tread deeper into the purple shadow of pumice walls. I deftly pass through the steps in my mind to a time when my mother was dying and my dogs were young. I think: there was beauty to be grateful for, even then.
Thoughts track sideways around basalt stones, dark and heavy.
Another memory: my brother told me a story that when he was young, he remembers our mother looking across the mesas, proclaiming the beauty of what she saw. My brother didn’t understand, for how could the earth be beautiful? The lesson: Beauty has nothing to do with the earth, and I am humbled by all that I don’t understand. Even so, the earth still has for me a sense of generosity. Others have been less lucky.
The nihilist in me absconds back to its wooded sanctuary. The child in me grieves. My ancient self seeks the desert grave where my mother lies buried, alone, yet among the others. In the history books: a genocide becomes a fantasy, and human lives become signs for ideas. Powerlessness overcomes me. Routines arrive with a warm familiarity, a soft hand.
Is this experience unique to me? I doubt it. The preponderance of memes, self-help books, regimens, calls to “self-love,” wellness, and rooting out the “narcissists” in our lives only lays bare the degree to which a large number of us, at least those among the consumers of social media, desire to better understand social relationships, or what constitutes emotional health. Negativity, conflict, sadness, failure—all of these are rendered to some extent taboo—save for when they are expressed through a specific context. By this, I refer the kinds of moral dialogues, sites of truth-values, that have become available and sensible through political discourse. In this register, not only is anger, outrage, sadness, grief, and disgust permitted, but they seem to be the very substance of communication. Politics, ideologies—the viscous medium through which emotions attain form. Whereas negative emotions are effectively expunged from the realm of the personal through efficient “self-care,” they are instead experienced through a constructed sense of some united, moral identity. If a person persistently experiences uncomfortable or intense emotions on the individual level, however, they are pathologized.
From an anthropological perspective, this pattern of beliefs and behaviors is interesting. We could describe it as a sort of schism between the personal and the social whereby both are rendered fuzzy around the edges—in some cases, unintelligible. It feels confusing. On one hand, the dominant sensibility presumes that emotions are an innately individual experience, that our personalities are somehow experienced through them.
We are mandated, above all, to cultivate licit emotions with the same assiduity that we would complete a task list. Embrace joy, we are told (or worse “lean in to Joy!”) I can only call to mind Bernini’s Saint Teresa, collapsing in ecstasy. Oh! That I were a saint! Emotions, according to these dictates, become more akin to commodified goods, sites of performative privilege—especially if they can be framed as transcendent, spiritual. And even if the emotions are presented as packaged little achievements we can nominally possess, there persists the parallel belief that emotions are unmediated sensations that arise through experience. They are, thus, at once an object of desire while also appearing to have a degree of subjectivity, sharing a causal relationship with human activity. Do we attain emotions through activity (a sort of labor), or are the emotions themselves an essential part of being? If they are both, what is the relationship between activity and being?
Despite the unclear ontological status that emotions occupy, as we enter adulthood, we are thought to develop the capacity to self-reflect and understand how our emotions function. This represents a development whereby we are meant to become responsible for our feelings, particularly our emotional reactions to every-day life experiences, including tragedies and crises.
I don’t mean to argue against this notion; there is plenty of literature that supports it. For instance, thoughts (another can of worms) do reportedly have an impact on the way we experience emotion, and changing thought patterns are shown to result in changes in emotional states. These theories can also be observed in the course of pyscho-therapeutic treatment. Certain modalities, most notably dialectical behavioral therapy, center on the seeming paradox wherein we are, in many ways, at the mercy of our emotions but can also develop the skills to more successfully navigate them for the purpose of effective communication and behavioral rehabilitation. In DBT, the focus is not—as in Freudian psychology—on unconscious desires and primal conflicts; but rather on skills that can be honed and practiced over time. As with other habits—lifting weights, eating healthy—the thinking goes, one can effectively model a new way of being in the world and being with oneself. It is a challenging but hopeful process.
Yet, there are tensions. Accepting the ambiguity of emotions calls into question many of the culturally accepted narratives regarding emotions and personality, many of which re-affirm dysfunctional patterns. It appears antithetical, for example, to consider emotions as unmediated sensations containing factual information when examined through the lens, of say, PTSD, wherein emotional dysregulation results from conditioned learning. Here, emotions are not innately linked to the inherent good or bad of the present experience, but are rather interpreted as patterned responses (to events, social dynamics) that can be, with patient guidance, softened over time. How can my feelings be at once, valid, deeply personal, and life-changing, while also being in some ways fixed to a set of circumstances that have nothing to do with me directly? In exploring this paradox, I submit that emotions are the site at which the perceived boundaries between the individual and the world effectively dissolve.
In a related way, personality is somehow conceived of as innate or fixed—an expression of being, an a priori principle. Understood in this light, emotions become the language or unique signature of a personality. If you experience emotional disturbances or are otherwise pathologized, the problem becomes greater, for how are you to “fix” your emotions if you are characteristically deficient? Typically, individual therapy, medications, are applied directly. However, many therapists know that a large part of the equation to healing is encouraging family members and friends to cooperate in the process. The site of relationships and social bonds, it would seem, is therefore the true site of behavioral health and disease. From this perspective, we can assign a more social and cultural dimension to personality.
Learning to operate differently in a world that can’t decide how it feels about feelings is rife with problems. We set our own traps. We think that if we make the uncomfortable emotions go away, we can “be” happy. The ways in which we identify these supposed enemies, however, takes place in a communal context, wherein moral feelings are acknowledged as shared: between classes, racial identities, gender identities, and other social categories, each of which feeds into the larger system of political discourse. Everyone is angry, morally outraged, disgusted, and frustrated, but each identifies the cause of his or her negative feelings according to a shared system, a specific code. This affective aspirational movement creates a feedback loop, wherein we displace emotion, or confuse its origin, and must scavenge to obtain information about our personal identities in order to understand how we feel about ourselves and others.
The experience of individual emotion and personality, thus, is part of a moral process by which we acknowledge or strive for ideological belonging. Put another way, it constitutes a search for love, belonging. For the person experiencing “disordered” emotions, there is only, on one hand, the potential for dysfunction, whereby personal agency is somehow erased, or there is a pull towards self-rejection. Without a proper outlet, feeling oneself in the world can be traumatic. On a social level—disastrous.
Humans have evolved to live and work together for a common good in a social setting. Physiologically speaking, we are relatively weak and ill-suited to survive in our environment, with its hots, colds, storms, fires and floods. As Clifford Geertz observed, it was through the tools of language and culture that we have secured our health and safety across generations. Emotions, I believe, are inseparable from culture; they are both sites of life-force and of trauma. If the culture is unwell, then no amount of self-healing, self-care, rooting out the “toxic” people from your life, or eating kale is going to do much of any good. At its worst, this only perpetrates narcissism, selfishness, ignorance, and a deeply problematic understanding of the communicable nature of personality and emotion.
How many people are lonely out there, trying to work against their pain, which they claim as their own, through yoga and skincare regimens and the law of attraction? In the meantime: family structures disintegrate, we become fearful of our neighbors, phobic to foreign influences, and retreat further into our own fantasies.
As I reflect on my own, interminable loneliness, I can think only of the red desert, dry air, my mother’s ashes, buried in a plot at the Rosario cemetery in Santa Fe, and the stringent blue sky, which I can love with a more perfect grace.