On Feeling

I have been thinking about feeling lately. By “lately,” I mean since May, when I purchased a copy of Leslie Jamison’s excellent collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. The summer before my senior year of high school, Leslie taught me at the Iowa Young Writers Studio, where she was exactly the kind of person you would expect to write a book like The Empathy Exams: crazy smart and unbelievably generous. I’ve had a girl-crush on Leslie since briefly studying with her for those two weeks, and couldn’t wait to read her new book. The Empathy Exams came to me at a perfect time, as seems to be the case with literature bound to change you: the universe delivers it to us when we need it most. It was the end of the semester, and sure, I was all the things a student should be as classes finish and finals begin: stressed, anxious, worried. But it wasn’t the usual exam-frenzy that was weighing on me: I was wondering if I was doing this whole being-a-human thing right.

Over the course of the semester I’d had a shockingly simple but significant revelation: everyone was fragile. Between January and May people who’d I’d assumed were happy shared that they were just the opposite; people I’d only ever seen smile cried openly next to me. It was like noticing a birthmark on a friend for the first time: had she been excellent at concealing it, or were you simply not paying attention? I was worried I hadn’t been paying attention; I was worried I wasn’t being a rigorous enough fellow human.

And that is something Leslie’s book examines with meticulous and painstaking care: how do we care better for one another? How do we feel someone’s pain without appropriating it? How do we mindfully empathize?

I can’t summarize Leslie’s findings and observations myself, because to try to do so would weaken her articulate thoughts. I urge you: go read her book. It will teach you important things, like it taught me this: there is no correct way to feel.

Most of you have probably already realized that—the words look ridiculous even to me: a correct way to feel? Feeling is subjective and impulsive! Correctness doesn’t come into play until you involve thinking, which is objective and calculated. At least, most of the time it is. Right? Maybe?

Like nearly everything I’ve contemplated, I’ve found the overlap of feeling and thought to be a messy and confusing place. Because we often think certain events should make you feel a certain way: you’re supposed to be sad at a funeral. Happy at a birthday. A mix of the two at graduation. But what if you don’t feel the way you think you should?

The same could be said of visiting places that are renowned for their beauty or historical significance—they are supposed to trigger a certain emotion (awe, pride, etc.). And now I’ll tell you a secret: I think I am one of the only human beings to be underwhelmed by the sight of the Grand Canyon.

I’ve always been someone drawn to small, quiet sights rather than grand, dramatic ones. It’s something I often berated myself for: Appreciate this national monument! Notice the beauty of this mountain! Feel what everyone else says you should feel! To this day I still have a sneaking suspicion that I’m emotionally bankrupt, until a sentence in a story breaks my heart (see: Claire Vaye Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn, where a character’s friend tells her “You don’t love people…You love what they do to you”) or I’m driving in the rain and everything looks so much more beautiful when it’s wet that I have the urge to pull over. Then I’m convinced I’m an over-emotional mess.

I must have been ten or twelve when we visited the Grand Canyon. I dreaded reacting to the most scenic site in the United States the entire drive to the rim. I planned how I would respond: a gasped wow, maybe a hand clapped over my mouth in disbelief to really seal the deal. When we finally parked and made our way to the guardrail, flanked by tourists whose outfit of cargo pants and baseball caps mirrored our own, my parents behaved how I knew I should: “Woah,” they said. “Isn’t this something, Alina?”

“Yeah,” I mustered, distracted by a bus of elderly tourists wobbling down the stairs of a vehicle that looked as old as its passengers. “Wow.”

I always hoped I’d outgrow this indifference that I knew made me look like an unappreciative sulker. I told myself my young brain was simply not well-informed enough, well-read enough, well-traveled enough. All I needed was time.

Well, I am now approaching 21, and I still feel the same way—that is, a lack of feeling. A few weeks ago we traveled to Barcelona and visited the famous Sagrada Família church—designed by Gaudí, it’s surreal, magical, and, at least to me, inaccessible. What I appreciated about the church were the details—the fruits stacked upon its pillars outside, the stained-glass windows inside that dripped colored light onto the floor. But the scale of the building prevented me from feeling any connection to it; it was beautiful, that was undeniable. But I couldn’t summon the emotion everyone around me seemed to be experiencing, walking around with tilted heads and hung-open mouths. It was the Grand Canyon all over again.

That’s not to say I wasn’t moved when we were in Spain. In fact, I was moved (“to move”, via M-W: “to stir the emotions, feelings, or passions of”) often. By the man offering samples of dried fruit to an elderly woman in an open market. By a young girl in a cream-colored dress leading a proud parade of family to her First Communion. By a young couple that sat shoulder to shoulder in a small coffee shop, drinking espresso and sharing a plate of jam soaked toast. I don’t know why I’m captured by these little moments instead of the big scenes; maybe it’s my brain’s form of self-defense against overstimulation. Do I wish I could feel an overwhelming, other-worldly sense of awe when I look at the Grand Canyon or Sagrada Família? Of course. But I wish that it were appropriate to feel more widely and more deeply all the time, rather than reserving passionate feelings for monumental-enough triggers. I want the little stuff to feel as significant as the big stuff. I want to feel fragility before it reaches breaking point.

We are often told not to be “too sensitive.” In case you couldn’t tell by now, I like definitions. So let me define “sensitive” (again, via our dear M-W). The first two are the negative, emotion as an unsettling agent: “1.) easily upset by the things that people think or say about you 2.) likely to cause people to become upset.” And then there is the third: “aware of and understanding the feelings of other people.” I used to think (and sometimes, shamefully, still do) that showing emotion is weak. I have little admiration for delicacy. I have coaxed people into opening up to me without opening myself in return. I was afraid of sharing a feeling I shouldn’t be feeling. And there seemed to be a certain strength in coldness, in impenetrability. But now I think the real strength is in sensitivity—glossing over someone’s discomfort is easy. But acknowledging it, understanding it, feeling it? That’s strong. Sometimes I’m not strong enough to do it. But I’m trying.