Emotions in an Atomized Culture
A Greek friend and I used to joke that, for her, emotions were a social phenomenon – usually experienced, even overwhelmingly, in group settings. These experiences also tended to be physical: having a palpitation, swooning or crying out at the dinner table when someone said something jarring. Others would also be reacting, and might attend to the person with the biggest reaction, fluttering around them and telling everyone else what to do about the crisis.
But, it was difficult for her to experience emotions in a differentiated, intellectually integrated way by herself – if alone, she would simply become overwhelmed by physical sensations, or paralyzed by an anxious/depressive state. It is interesting to note that this paralysis is the experience of much of the population today, and counselors’ schedules are regularly filled with people complaining of exactly this kind of debilitation.
The ‘up’ side to this individualistic social landscape is that we have the opportunity to differentiate our thoughts and feelings from those of others. We have access to, one might say, an Enlightenment expectation that we ‘strike out on our own’ as we grow in our families, eventually forming our own ideas and visions for our lives. Our family members may not always hold this same expectation, but my clients teach me that their families can usually be taught this freer way of knowing each other.
However, the freedom of being a differentiated person comes with the imperative that we develop our emotional lives accordingly. Ideas and visions don’t provide much guidance as to what to do with our bodily, inevitable, abundant emotional responses. How do we do that? That is the focus of much of the work that happens in my office.
The Western world has made wonderful headway in this, by using the Eastern traditions of mindfulness, and then by knitting the intellect into that mindfulness via labelling the emotions that we “sit with.” In this way, often through sheer desperation as we live in our fragmented communities, we are perhaps finding a new way of being human.