A friend of mine yet grieves her mother. I take her out for wine and let her talk and cry and talk. As we leave the restaurant, she tells me she almost did not accept my invitation. “I was afraid you’d try to cheer me up.”
It’s not surprising: Cheering the person up is the default reaction by many people when confronted with grief or pain or suffering. During the long, hard slog of a very serious depression, when I would call out to friends for help stepping back from the edge, more often than not what came back were cheerful platitudes or earnest injunctions to put on a happy face. For a long time this reaction hurt me; I took it as evidence of indifference, at best. But gradually, I realized what I was witnessing was neither indifference nor disregard nor even emotional obliviousness. What it was, was fear. Other people’s emotions are scary. Almost as scary as our own.
Emotions are universal but not their expression: Culture shapes how we display what we feel—and how we feel about that display. In America, the most socially acceptable emotions are happiness and anger, though not necessarily in that order and not necessarily for everyone. Anger in men is acceptable, even prized; anger in women isn’t. Ditto for white people versus people who are not white. In class we read Malcolm X’s “By any means necessary,” and the students cry, “He’s so angry!” We read Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” and they say, “He’s so brave.”
In any event, the lower-register emotions—sadness, disheartenment, despair—are especially frightening to many of us. I was not far into my midlife dating sojourn before realizing expressing an emotion deeper than eyelash-batting happiness was the quickest way to send most men running for the door. Since I am a writer and the writer’s job, I believe, is to look straight into the heart of what it means to be human in the world, and since emotions are intricately connected to that human experience, this made dating challenging. “You seem to feel things more deeply than other people,” one guy told me. “It’s terrifying.”
Another guy asked me straight out: “Do you feel your feelings?”
“Of course,” I said. “Don’t you?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think I do.”
To say there’s a price to pay for all this fear of feelings seems obvious. For this particular guy, the price was an experience of living so dampened it was like having coffee with a wet sock. For relationships (of all kinds) it means a kind of superficial skating along the top: It’s all texting and cross-monologues and having a beer while we root for the team, and then people go home and cry in the dark. For society the price is higher still: Setting aside the very real issue of gun lust, it seems clear that a toxic inability to deal with pain and disappointment contributes to America’s epidemic of gun violence, in all its terrible forms.
In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde argues that Western privileging of intellect over emotion serves to uphold patriarchy and white supremacy. The way out of the trap, she says, is not through our heads but through our hearts.
“As we come into touch with our own, ancient, non-European consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge, and therefore lasting action, comes.”
Feel your feelings. No one else can.
McLarin ’86 is a novelist, essayist, and playwright and an associate professor at Emerson College. Her latest book, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, will be published in October.