Feeling My Way Through
I find myself at one of those moments at which everything is great and yet nothing seems to be working exactly right. I’ve got an enormous deadline just ahead — not, alas, the “boy, I’m going to blow that deadline and then I’m going to feel sheepish and guilty when I finally send the thing in two weeks late” kind, but the “I will be standing in front of a very large crowd of people unveiling absolutely nothing if this thing doesn’t get done on time” kind. And in fact I think it’s going to get done on time, if we can keep all the little parts working like they’re supposed to. But this weekend a whole bunch of the little parts stopped working. Freaking out may have ensued.
My stress levels, it is needless to say, are through the roof right now. And so Sunday morning, I finally managed — after an altogether alarming number of weeks — to get myself out the door and to a yoga class. And the class was mostly great, and I’m very glad I went, but I had the thing happen afterward where the class managed — I don’t know how else to describe this — to open one of those spots in my body where I shove a whole lot of anxiety and anger and sadness that I don’t want to deal with, and so all of that got released and came flooding to the surface. Needless to say, this is more or less the exact opposite of what I want from yoga.
I’m trying to leave myself open to the possibility, however, that it’s what I need, that exhuming all that negative stuff is a necessary precursor to developing the positive stuff I’m looking for. And so I tried to do the thing that I find so hard: to really let myself feel the anxiety and anger and sadness without either clinging to the feelings or pushing them away.
Saying that I find that hard is an understatement. For one thing, I have a thick streak of Pollyanna in me, one that fairly relentlessly shoves aside anything negative with a rousing internal chorus of “take off that gloomy mask of tragedy; it’s not your style” and other such anthems of indefatigable optimism.1 For another, however, and probably more importantly, I have spent so long as a scholar living in brain-on-a-stick mode — pushing aside all of the claims not just of my body but of my heart as well, in favor of a total acquiescence to the dictates of my head — that I find it really, really hard to actually feel what I am feeling. As soon as I start feeling something, I want more than anything to know what I am feeling, to name it, determine its etiology, decide whether it’s beneficial, and if not, eradicate it as quickly as possible.
Actually living with a feeling long enough to feel it? Unthinkable. Which may precisely be the point.
There’s a deep irony in this, given that I was a most over-emotional adolescent — and that adolescence stretched on longer than I might care to admit. It’s possible that I was referred to as “histrionic” on more than one occasion, and certain very close family members may or may not have compared me to melodramatists of screen and stage. (Often.)
I learned from those family members, of course, not just about what was seemly and what wasn’t, but also what was valued and what wasn’t — and it turned out that the ability to contain your emotions, to condense them into a little knot that can take up residence between your shoulder blades, to push feeling aside in favor of thinking, was a useful skill, professionally speaking. And I discovered that the more I rationalized, the less frequently I was told I was irrational, over-emotional, highstrung. The more, in fact, I was told that I was smart.
I’m now at a crossroads, however, at which I am beginning to wonder whether there might be benefits — I mean, not just personal benefits, but real, actual, professional benefits, benefits for the profession and its relationship to the world — to ending the rational charade, to remember what it felt like to feel things, even to let feeling sometimes take the lead.2 What would it be for academia to cultivate its relationship with its heart just as much as that with its head?3
Perhaps I’m over-generalizing what is in fact a personal, individual issue. But I don’t think so. I am coming to think that many aspects of academic life, from faculty meetings to hiring and promotion processes, including communication both amongst ourselves and with the outside world, would be much improved if we all stopped insisting that everything of value can be thought, if we focused on cultivating an emotional maturity to complement our intellectual maturity. If we weren’t too embarrassed to hit “publish” on a post that starts like this one, that’s so personal as to be all about how I feel.
- Yes, I realize I’m mixing my texts there. In reviewing this post, however, I found myself struck by the degree to which the American musical theater and related films of the mid-twentieth century were apparently produced by that annoying guy on the street who cannot refrain from saying “smile, beautiful! It’s not that bad!” I have been fully interpellated by the “sunny side of the street” authorities, and yet I still want to punch that guy and shout “no, it is precisely that bad.” ↩
- My previous footnote points to one of the obvious challenges: the degree to which American feelings have been manipulated by, and often surrendered to, its popular culture. It’s in this vein that undergraduates often complain about classes in English or media studies draining all of the pleasure out of their objects; it’s only in a rational exploration of those pleasures that we’re able to see how they’re constructed — but once we see it, it often takes a lot more work before we can get back to untrammeled enjoyment. ↩
- And so, in the spirit of the previous footnote, what would it be to acknowledge that even the debased, manipulated feelings generated by popular culture are in fact feelings, and that while they need to be separated from meanings, they nonetheless carry a profound importance for the ways contemporary culture does and doesn’t — especially doesn’t — function? Am I once again shoving away heart in favor of head if I wonder what we might learn by really listening to the heart at its most irrational? ↩