Lauren and I sit in her Jeep in an alley across the street from the building where we take a writing workshop together. It’s dark, almost 9:30 at night, Lauren’s face illuminated by the glow of her car’s dashboard, street sounds filtering through our open windows. The
night air is warm and still–and electric with the nightlife of nearby VCU, the students energized from their summer hiatus, enlivened by reunions with sorority sisters and roommates and classmates.
“One thing I struggle with,” Lauren tells me, “is feeling like my emotions aren’t valid. Like, I have it so good compared to other people. What do I have to complain about–to feel sad or angry or upset about?”
I get what she’s saying. I mean, how do I dare say I’m overworked or overwhelmed or stressed out when, somewhere in the world, someone else spends 12 hours a day toiling in a sweatshop for pennies–and feels grateful, maybe, just to have a job? How could I dare complain about missing my sister, who lives 10 hours away, when somewhere in the world, someone else’s sister lives even farther way–or maybe isn’t even alive anymore at all? How dare I feel sad or stressed when my biggest problems are wishing I didn’t have to get up for work Monday morning; not getting enough sleep; and trying to figure out how to cram a full work day, a trip to the grocery store, a run, and a family dinner into one day? Especially when I compare those worries to the much more burdensome concerns of people around me? How ungrateful am I? If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes.
If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread any less valid.
But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread–or Lauren’s, or anyone’s–any less valid. (And, on a side note, how interesting that we beat ourselves up over the validity of only negative emotions. I’ve never heard anyone say, “How dare I be happy when someone else has it so much better?” but I’ve heard time and time again, “How dare I be sad when someone else has it so much worse?”) Your sorrow might result from X; mine, from Y. But we both experience sorrow, regardless of the cause. My anxiety might come from this; yours, from that. But we both experience anxiety. The experience of the emotion makes it valid, not the cause of the emotion. It’s the emotion that counts, not always its cause–not all the time.
Think about it like this: I’m currently working on an article about the ingredients and “superingredients” (think: super foods) you should look for in your dog’s food, and one thing I’ve learned in my research is that more important than the individual ingredients, are the nutrients found in those ingredients. So, while you might want salmon or chicken to be included on the ingredients list, what you’re really after–and what your dog’s system is really after–is the protein (or the omega-3 fatty acids or the omega-6 fatty acids–but you’ll have to read the article for more on that) the salmon or chicken (or dried egg product or oatmeal or lamb…) provides. Just as the nutrient is more important than the ingredient that provides it, so the emotion is more important than the experience that causes it.
When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. We understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
Our conversation put me in mind of two things, the first, something I read recently: Reading makes us more empathetic people. If we know what grief feels like–even if the only cause of it in our own lives is the impending fade of summer vacation into another school year–we can understand what grief feels like when it’s caused by a situation we have never experienced–a divorce, the loss of a beloved friend. When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. Perhaps you’re reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. You’ve likely (SPOILER ALERT!) never had to kill your best friend to spare him a worse fate–that has probably never been the cause of your sorrow, grief, or loneliness (I hope!). But you likely have lost a best friend, to one situation or another, and thus are capable of empathizing with the character’s sense of sorrow, grief, and loneliness. You understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
The second is this: a fellow writer’s assertion that writers feel more deeply than, well, non-writers. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is, than we creative writer types, well–our sorrow over the death of yet another glorious summer might feel akin to the sorrow someone else feels over something others might deem much more worthy of sorrow. And, as a writer, having known sorrow, you can now transfer that sense of sorrow, however trivial its cause, to your characters, who might be likely to experience it as a result of whatever circumstance they’re in.
In any case, reading, writing, and emotional experience are intimately and inexplicably intertwined. Whether your emotion is triggered by something even you yourself deem trivial, or something almost anyone would deem worthy of the resulting emotional reaction, pain is pain, love is love, anger is anger, joy is joy. Emotions are part of the human experience. We do not all share the same lives, the same experiences, the same situations. What we do share, though, are the human feelings these lives, experiences, and circumstances cause. We all know love. We all know vengeance. We all know fear. We all know gratitude. We all feel, no matter the source of the feelings.