Monday, October 21, 2019

"Too Emotional"

There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. ~Friedrich Nietzsche  

The stereotypical argument used to exclude women from business, science, politics, the military, or indeed just about any category of public life is that they are "too emotional." Emotions, the theory goes, renders them incapable of making rational decisions. Most of us, of course, instinctively recognize this as a baseless patriarchal assertion, one that is disproven every day as we find women succeeding in every area of society.

Chihuly glass

As a preschool teacher, I've learned that emotions have no gender. Every child cries. Every child has tantrums. Every child experiences fear, frustration, envy, joy, disappointment, and melancholy, and gender has nothing to do with how and how often. As children grow older, however, society tends to be more accepting of girls' expressions of a fuller range of emotions, but there is still a lot of pressure to hide bad feelings behind a smile. Boys quickly learn to hide their "negative" feelings behind stoicism and anger, the only public emotion "allowed" to them. A boy who cries or is afraid is often mocked. A boy who smiles too much is often considered flighty or unserious. This doesn't mean, however, that boys and men don't feel the same emotions as girls and women, only that we are not as free to express them.

We are all emotional, but that begs the question: is it possible to be too emotional? I suppose the answer is yes, to the degree that our emotions become incapacitating or destructive. We all have those moments when we flip our lids, curl up in a ball of anxiety, or trudge through days as if under a dark cloud. When it becomes chronic we call it mental illness. So yes, I suppose it is possible to be too emotional, but it is equally possible, and perhaps even common, to not be emotional enough. It's only through our emotions, not our intellects, that we fully connect with one another, understand, empathize, and communicate. Without emotion, we are but automatons, doomed to stand outside of humanity either as outcast or villain. We all have our times when we become emotionally exhausted, when we detach for a time. When our emotional detachment becomes chronic we call it sociopathy.

It's tempting to conclude that it's all about finding a balance, but there's no fulcrum here upon which to rest an easy center. Our emotions are too important for that. They are to be felt fully and honestly, not balanced out with cool rationalism. Indeed, rationality cannot exist without emotion.

For much of the 20th century scientists were convinced that emotions played no role, and were perhaps even an impediment to rational thought, which provided much of the "scientific" underpinning for denying women (and children for that matter) rights and opportunities. But more recent research has found that emotions play a critical role in our ability to make decisions. Rather than clouding our judgement, the neural systems that underlie emotions are essential to high-level cognition, in other words decision-making. One of the pioneers in this research is an American-Portuguese neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio. Much of his work has been done on patients whose brains have been injured and who, as a result, are missing the connection between their sensory input and emotions. The rapid beating of their heart at the prospect of crossing a narrow bridge, for instance, doesn't provoke fear. Based on traditional views, one would conclude that this fearless person would be more clear-headed and, therefore, be more inclined to making rational decisions. But Damasio has found the opposite to be true: his emotionless patients proved incapable of making reasonable decisions. This is a conclusion that has now been replicated numerous times by other scientists.

In other words, we need our emotions in order to make sound judgements and our greater doubt should be saved for those who do not credit their emotions because they are more likely, according to science, to be the irrational ones. But like much of what scientists are "learning" about humans, this is actually ancient knowledge, long understood by artists and mystics alike. As Lao Tzu wrote in the 6th century BC, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with you life of doing." That is, and always will be, the path of wisdom.

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