Musings on the Emotions

Emotions are the background context in which our subjective experiences take place. They paint, and possibly distort, virtually every moment of our existence. Can we say that we ever have an emotion-less moment? Emotions are not always characterized by their excesses or their extreme states, which is how we often think of them. For example, anger, sadness, jealousy, joy, etc., are emotions with distinct names, because they are distinct emotions; separated from the other, more nuanced emotions, by their very vividity and starkness.  If one introspects upon their emotions enough, they begin to discover these other, more nuanced, blurry, and inexact emotions that are constantly at play. The mark of a healthy mind is the stability of those emotions which are more or less positive or neutral, and are also, to a greater or lesser extent, resistant to negative external pressure. If we take all of this into account, it seems less likely that an “emotionless” state is possible. I would be open to arguments or evidence to the contrary, of course. Either way, its safe to say that emotions play a much bigger role in our existential experience then we generally acknowledge.

I have also come to notice that some of the aforementioned “distinct” emotions for which we have clear definitions and meanings are not emotions unto themselves, but composed of a constituency of other emotions. Jealousy, for example, is a perfect example of an emotion that we generally think to be entirely distinct from others (and Love, Anger or Hate are perfect examples of emotions that can be said to exist in their own right, irreducible to other more basic emotions.) In reality, I think it can be said that jealousy is actually an emergent property that presents itself when a few different, and possibly contradictory, emotions bubble up simultaneously. Surely both love and hate, or at least some aspect of those emotions, are at play in jealousy. These are contradictory emotions (love and hate), giving us that odd, perplexing and unsavory feeling in our gut that we get when we become victims of jealousy. In addition to love and hate, a pinch of bitterness or envy are present as well, along with a dash of anger and a sprinkling (sometimes more than a sprinkling) of possessiveness (which can be seen both as a trait and an emotion, in my opinion. Surely we have felt a unique emotion associated with the possession of certain dearly valued object that is not really love, but a certain other sort of desire or longing). This emotion is often felt in relation to humans instead of to objects, when we feel a certain entitlement to another person. In romantic relationships especially, this emotion of possessiveness is ever-present and can get out of control rather easily. It’s a curious effect of the human mind that we direct an emotion reserved for the possession of inanimate objects towards a human being, but it is not surprising. This need to possess, and its contingent emotional baggage, probably has its roots in the human desire to control the chaos of reality. We exercise this need for control in a myriad of ways, but our affection towards certain objects is one of the more peculiar manifestations of this need for control, in my opinion.  Objects don’t die, they tend to stay around, and if we can possess something that does not get old and die, in contrast to ourselves, we can have a subconscious calming.  We can attach our transient selves to a not-so-transient object , and thus get an illusory, albeit sedating, sense of control over our own inevitable fate. We invest our very selves into objects such that our most prized possessions are not just possessions, but externalizations of our own selves. It is not a surprise, when viewed from this perspective, that we should do the same to our lovers and friends. Our selves are intimately tied up in “the other”, and this can lead to a certain sense of entitlement to, or possessiveness over, that person, because in them we view a part of our selves, and what do we own in this world if not our own selves?

Emotions of the sort we have been discussing, as well as emotions generally, are absolutely vital for the way we interact socially.  We like to fancy ourselves as rational agents, more or less reasonable creatures with a very potent intellect.  We emphasize the rational over the emotional because the rational is what sets us apart of the animal world.  Emotions seem more base, more instinctual, and thus more animalistic, and so we downplay their importance to our intellectual lives.  However, all reason exists in an emotional context.  Emotions play a very significant role in our decision-making, our reasoning, and our thinking generally.  To be rational without any emotion would be a very different sort of “rational” than we assume.  It would be cold, distant and calculating because it would not have the emotional under-current to give it direction, morality, and “heart”.  Therefore, as much as we try, we cannot separate our rational selves from our emotional selves, they are inexorably interconnected, and that is actually a very good thing.

This dominance of the emotions is what makes human relationships so god damn hard.  Especially romantic relationships.  It is hard enough for most of us to deal with our own emotional ups and downs and keep the mental ship steady, let alone doing that laborious work for another person as well.  The human emotional complex is a complicated beast; its messy, difficult to understand let alone navigate, and so strong at times as to make us chemical puppets to our emotional surges for a period of time.  One day we are passionate, engaged, motivated and excited with life and the next we wax cynical, retreat from the world, and experience a sort of mental apathy.  Such is the plight of the emotional ape.

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