I recently watched a ballet performance. I do not understand it. Ballet, to me, is like listening to someone tell a story in a language I don’t even recognize, let alone understand. I have not studied the vocabulary of dance to know what the performer is trying to instill or draw from me. As an audience member, I will be honest with my ballet friends and say, I will clap and cheer, but that applause will come from a place of profound appreciation of the physicality and flexibility it takes to perform at a high level of skill in the ballet world. I can appreciate the hours of practice, hard work, memorization, and rehearsal it took to put that dance on the stage. But please, at this point in my life, do not ask me what it meant or how I felt… because I don’t even know.
This experience reminded me of an episode of Invisibilia that I listened to recently. (Yes, you’re all going to be pulled into another of my podcast ventures again.) This episode was on emotions. One of the researchers interviewed in the course of the show presented her findings that emotions are not innate, but taught. That emotions are “concepts” – ideas that our brain uses to explain what’s going on inside of our body when introduced to something around us in the world. She referenced the fact that there are cultures and societies in the world that have markedly different emotions and reactions from one another to similar experiences. Because these “concepts” of emotions are learned, what we experience inside our bodies can differ dramatically from someone else, but it also means that emotions may be much more under our control than we may have thought previously.
When we have words and concepts to understand the world around us, and inside us, we can respond better to what’s going on in the world. A trained musician understands the language of music and can hear what the composer is trying to convey through the piece being played. A professional dancer can watch and feel what a dancer is communicating through their body and movements. A writer can see the subtle allusions and puns hidden throughout a piece of literature. And someone who has been raised to understand emotions and how to respond to them is better able to control themselves in emotional situations. In other words, to understand something, we have to have a vocabulary to explain it. That vocabulary may be actual words, but it may be a collection of experiences as well – such as dance, music, and even food. My favorite example of this was pointed out in the Cracked Podcast in several episodes: the Greeks had no word for the color blue, which meant they probably didn’t see blue – their description of the sea was often “wine colored.” On the other hand, some Eastern European languages have multiple commonly used words for the color blue linked to different shades, and so they, on average, are able to see more shades of blue than other groups. With the “concept” comes better understanding and the ability to see, sometimes literally, the world better.
I understand that emotions have become, in the last few decades or possibly the last century, something of a taboo subject for society, especially for men. Despite this, our historical and literary record is full of men and women who are strong, capable human beings who understood emotion and were able to show that emotion even in positions of leadership. I wonder how children today view emotions or if they receive training at home in how to handle them?
Do they hear that it’s normal to be angry, but that we should not lash out because of it? Do they understand that sadness, grief, and joy all may warrant tears, and how to work through loss or gain? Do children hear about shame, guilt, conviction, and how each of those differ? Do children understand the difference between happiness and contentment? Do children know what to do with boredom and excitement? What about fear?
Without training in emotions and how to develop healthy relationships with them, we cannot expect children to be able to handle stressful scenarios later in life with as much grace and resilience. A stoic personality may be able to cope for a while, but trauma has a way of destroying whatever stoicism a person may have.
What kinds of conversations do you have at home about emotion? How do you model emotions and reactions to your family? How do you explain emotions when they happen and how to navigate through emotional moments?