“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”
― Joseph Campbell
I think of emotions❋ in layers.
There’s the top layer, those moment-by-moment, responsive emotions:
I stubbed my toe. Ow. Along with the physical pain, I feel annoyance and regret.
I’m late for something and in a rush. I feel frustration and stress.
Somebody lets me know they like something I wrote. I feel joy and satisfaction.
Then there is the middle layer, a kind of emotional topography that I inhabit most of the time, that I return to after those momentary, responsive emotions fade.
For most of my life, that middle layer has been a mix of these:
Curiosity. I like learning about the world, about people, about myself. This emotion is the driving force behind becoming a writer.
Gratitude. My life is filled with meaning and opportunity, and I see that. So many good things have come to me. Even the most difficult experiences have brought gifts. This life is rich and beautiful.
Ambition. I’m not sure this is the right word for the emotion I’m trying to describe. I like being challenged. I like stretching myself and seeing what I can do.
Peace. I feel pretty good about who I am and what my life is when I wake up in the morning. I’m satisfied with the direction I’m going.
Wow, so far so good. I sure have my emotional shit together, don’t I?
But wait, there’s more!
For only three monthly payments of $199.95, you can get an all-access pass to The Basement: it’s the dark, smelly, bottom level of this emotional landscape, and it’s filled with
Confusion! How do I know what’s true about myself? About others? About the world and the nature of reality? How do I know who/what to trust? What are the standards that guide me? How do I get to do what I want without hurting others? How do I honor my desires without being a jerk? Why do so many other people seem to know exactly what to do/how to act and I don’t?
Frustration! I’m wasting my time on things that aren’t important to me, and I feel the cost of it. I’m taking care of others and resenting that they don’t appreciate it. I’m putting everybody else’s priorities above my own and I hate living that way. I’m worried about pleasing people and getting approval, and simultaneously mad that I let worry and approval control me. I know this isn’t how I want to live, but how do I change?
Anxiety! I mean, when you add up the confusion and frustration, anxiety is kind of a natural emotional result. What if I never figure things out? What if everything is falling apart and I’m too stupid to notice? What if everyone hates me? What if I can’t change? What if I hurt the people I love most? What if I can’t do it (whatever “IT” is)?
Anger! Oh yeah. Lots of anger, in lots of flavors, from mild annoyance to earth-shaking rage to ice-cold resentment.
You may understand why I tend to avoid The Basement.
It’s terrifying and overwhelming. When I go there, I feel like I will be stuck there forever. I feel like it consumes every other (positive) emotion I’ve ever felt or ever could feel, forever and ever. I feel like I will never come out.
I feel like I will die.
Naturally, I decided I needed to explore The Basement at length. I got tired of avoiding an entire sub-level of emotions. I opened the door at the top of the stairs and stood there for a long time, looking down, feeling afraid.
Then I took a deep breath and went down.
It was much worse than I expected.
The Basement is not the deepest level. The Basement is not the final, dark frontier I have to conquer. The Basement is like the front porch of the most enormous haunted house you’ve ever seen.
No, it’s worse than that.
The Basement is like a beach destroyed by nuclear waste and bombs and filled with zombies and it is the first step you take into a world of horrific monsters, each one bigger and more terrifying than the last, and with each battle you know you’re only taking yourself to some final battle, to fight the final boss, and you know it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done and you will probably die.
Yay! Let’s pack a picnic lunch.
When you feel like the thing you’ve heading towards will most likely kill you, you want to run away. Survival instinct and all that.
But if you run away, it controls you. It’s still there waiting for you. It closes off so many options, so many choices and experiences, because everything you do takes you toward it or away from it. If you’ve decided to avoid it—the big ugly scary emotion monster-boss—you can only choose what takes you further away. And what takes you further away may not be what you really want.
There are three ways this story can end:
I can run away and keep running away forever and running away becomes the story of my life. The End.
I can keep going and find the big ugly monster and face it and fight it and it wins and I die. The End.
I can keep going and find the big ugly monster and face it and fight it and I win and it dies. The End.
SURPRISE! THERE’S AN ALTERNATE FOURTH ENDING!
I can keep going and find the big ugly monster and face it and NOT FIGHT IT and…
Well, really, The Beginning.
I’m having anniemueller.com moved (from the awful hosting service I’ve used for a hundred years to a much better much cheaper one) so there may be some loading issues/redirect snafus in the next few days.
Ethical.net. A collection of ethical alternatives and resources for technological tools and services. I’m slowly migrating the digital/tech tools I use from big conglomerates and purveyors of my data to smaller, better, respectful alternatives. This site has been a helpful resource.
Rationality: A-Z. This is “a set of sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky on human rationality and irrationality in cognitive science.” I’ve been reading the first collection/book, Map and Territory, and it’s interesting. Yudkowsky seems to be a fairly controversial person, according to the Interwebs, but I’ve found that what the Internet (collectively) “thinks” about a person is generally, ummm… how to put this?…stupid.
❋ What are emotions, even?
Seems like we should know what emotions are, the way we know what, say, a body is. But (like so many things) the more you try to pin it down, the more fluid it becomes.
“Emotions are the nexxus between matter and mind, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.”
— Dr Candace B Pert
I came across this series of articles discussing how many of our “universal emotions” are not so universal, and haven’t been around that long:
“It is widely believed that human emotions, from love to ambition to pride or desire for freedom, for instance, are hardwired into our brain and that, therefore, both their range and their nature are universal, shared by humanity as a whole. This belief is wrong and itself reflects the fundamental universalism of modern Western, particularly American, thought and its tendency to consider all human consciousness and behavior as a function of biology. Both comparative zoology and comparative history show that, above the limited range of emotions we share, as animals, with other animal species, what moves human beings and makes them suffer in one culture or society may be dramatically different from the emotions shaping the living experiences in another one.”