I wrote a final piece for my Creative Nonfiction Writing class here at Stanford. After reading part of it to my professor and my classmates, I realized that I wanted to share with you an excerpt from the 9-page behemoth it eventually became. I believe it has something significant to say.
To recap, I believe there are 3 different principles regarding the perception of emotion and human experience.
1- We may perceive the expression of an instance of emotion.
This sort of expression is any sort of outlet that serves one purpose: to draw out an emotion from within and bring it to life. Expression shows the world, beyond the bounds of the individual’s consciousness, what that person is feeling. We can perceive these things. We can see tears and smiling eyes. We can hear screams, laughter, and applause. We can feel kisses and hugs. We are able to interpret what someone is feeling based on the outlet or expression they present to us. Words, both written and spoken, are but one example of expression, alongside music, dance, and any other sort of art.
The luxury of language is an interesting concept, one that is a true gift to have in this world. The ability to take abstract ideas and create something real out of it. Perhaps not real, as language is still an abstract concept in itself, but something as close to real as possible. Something fathomable, something that can almost capture the essence of emotion through the manipulation of words. We are able to interpret this and understand this literal expression of emotion.
This is where the divide between the well-versed poet and the inexperienced writer, attempting to shout their feelings into the void, is drawn. The world’s interpretation of their works differ, due to the inherent ethos already established. This is but one instance of very valid emotions being discounted as less important, or less artful, than another’s.
Due to the perception of expression.
2- We may perceive the circumstance of an instance of emotion.
We are able to understand from where this sort of expression has derived.
Glorious sunsets drawing out contemplative smiles. College acceptance letters drawing out tears of joy. From huge moments of pure euphoria to quaint moments of gentle contentment– we can share that circumstance of emotion with one another. We can share the context of a feeling.
In the same way, we are able to attend the funeral of that widower’s beloved husband. We are able to seek support for and attend to a young boy subject to an eating disorder. We are able to call the police, and get help for the little lady in the clutches of an abusive relationship. We can bare witness to the teenage girl simply being neglected by the teenage boy. We understand their tears; we understand where their tears come from.
This is where humanity is its most beautiful. In solidarity, we can experience the world with each other; we can share sights and sounds, stand together, and stand for one another.
However, this is also where humanity falters. For we assume the circumstance of emotion to be directly proportional to the actual emotion felt by a person. This is cause for complication. Not only complication but also judgement and misunderstanding.
We expect excitement of people during generally “exciting” times, and feign understanding when an individual is unaroused. We often times don’t expect someone to respond so strongly to certain things that we disregard in our lives, such as a song or a movie scene, and make off-the-cuff remarks that criticize an individual’s response, which, of course, is under the guise of a joke and a chuckle. Too often does this happen without us realizing it. Too often do we trivialize one another’s emotions.
One more instance of invalidation.
Due to the perception of circumstance.
3- We may not perceive the actual relationship between the person and that emotion.
As we can concretely perceive the mode of expression and the circumstance, we assume that we understand how someone is feeling in an instance. Which, in actuality, is remarkably incorrect. We cannot feel the heartache that they feel. We empathize and we tell them that we “understand”, but we will never truly understand. We can only try to. All empathy is based around assumptions and implications, context clues, and an open mind.
The relationship between a person and an emotion, is an intimate one. Impossible to accurately judge from the outside, regardless of the interpretation of expression and circumstance. Unfair to be defined by a third-party. So how could we, as a society, act as if we could arbitrate how someone feels at a moment?
—From May I Grieve? by Isabela Angus
We as human beings have a moral obligation to be mindful of the reality that is someone else’s life. They are living their life. They have a heart and a soul and consciousness and an internal monolog that we have no full, 100%-true access to in this regard. We can only attempt to understand; we can only be open minded and accept things with an understanding that their reality is their own, and we have no say in how they exist within it.
Your emotions are valid, and I want you to remember that. I also want you to remember that you are in no position to invalidate or discount someone else’s emotions. You feel how you feel according to circumstance. They feel how they feel according to circumstance. And, in all scenarios and walks of life, an attempt to define their emotions and actions without regard to the third principle stated is dangerous.
Be mindful and be careful. Live life and treat others with an open heart and an open mind.