I admit it. Displays of emotion bother me. I’m not talking about a quick hug or peck on the lips in greeting, or a quiet dab of handkerchief at the corner of the eye. And laughter of just about any level slips past my discomfort zone.
It’s the wailing and shrieking of grief that sets my teeth on edge, a face wadded up with tears streaming, shoulders hiccupping. Whoever is suffering to this extreme shouldn’t be watched. Grief on display is, to me, a bit of fakery, or at least exaggeration, an attempt to garner attention and sympathy.
Similarly, I don’t want to observe someone convulsing in pain. If it’s an emergency, I would be the first to summon medical care or do what I could to relieve the injury. But if there’s nothing to be done, if the person is recovering from surgery or an illness and the moans and groans tumble from his lips in a constant agony, unless it’s a loved one who can benefit from my bedside assurances, I don’t need to be there.
It’s not that I deny soul-stirring experiences. But to me, these moments of extremis should be kept private. This was how I was raised, likely a tradition hearkening back to my cultural origins in the British Isles where a stiff upper lip practically goes without saying. I suspect an evolved survival instinct at work here. Indisposed by injury or seized in grief, a person is unaware of a lurking threat who means to take advantage.
And it’s not that I myself don’t wail and sob in sorrow, or writhe with a crushing headache. But I do it alone, behind closed doors, where I’m assured that no one observes. Alone, I am safe to let down my defenses and lick my wounds in solitude.
I’m one of those people who don’t want a hospital stay to become the next big event. I’m very appreciative of new laws requiring the hospital to gain my explicit permission before allowing anyone to wander into my room. Once, years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed in considerable discomfort following surgery, I was set upon by do-gooders from my mother’s church who stood at the bedside and murmured various platitudes as if (a) I could actually comprehend what they were saying through the fog of pain meds, (b) their words somehow provided me important comfort, and (c) we could all pretend that their visit had little to do with anything but a kind of distorted voyeurism. I hardly knew them. I was outraged, but of course I couldn’t leap up and show them the door, which—I think—may have contributed to their pleasure in being there.
Like church do-gooders, many people evidently get off on watching other people expose themselves. This would explain the otherwise incomprehensible rise of various types of television shows where people intentionally throw their bodies through sadistic obstacle courses, or wade into a competition for a love partner, or allow cameras to track their every private moment. Who are these people? And I don’t mean just those crazy or desperate enough to submit to this kind of “challenge.” Who watches this stuff? Who wants to observe someone farting, or gasping for air, or sobbing in humiliation? Ye gods! Spare me.
Is it a good thing that people are recently more willing to exhibit their pathos for public consumption? Some argue ‘yes,’ that it is only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can breathe through the suffering and grow as a person. But please note—I’m not advocating for denial of feelings. I for one am confident I can acknowledge my feelings and ‘grow’ without subjecting those around me to the process. Please explain how exactly internal growth benefits from an audience? If anything, the audience factor dilutes the event’s vehemence and immediacy.
Is emotive denuding a new kind of drug? Are we reducing our most heart-felt moments to ridicule and (excuse me, it’s time for popcorn) commonality as another way to avoid really feeling what we’re feeling? Are we watching gladiators fight for their lives while laughing in the stands? At what point do we connect the dots between routine trivialization of sensibilities and killing without compunction?
But pardon me while I change hats. I am not only an extremely private person but also an author, striving to create stories that someone wants to read. And while I myself will not let my personal emotions slip past my mask, I have to keep in mind that my characters will gain no purchase among readers if they do not spill their guts all over the page. In order to breathe life into made-up people, I must make them laugh, cry, tremble in terror, and contort in agony. Whether the descriptions of these various feelings are torrid or restrained as befits the tone of the story, characters must reflect their intimate experience of love or battle in ways that reflect what the reader would expect of a real person. My bias against overt expressions of passion thus works against me in my writing.
Consolation in this conflict between what I do and what I write lies in the fact that my stories are a private experience between the reader and the page. Even more to the point, the way in which I develop and expose characters to events that wring their hearts and tear their flesh is in itself a private process contained within the scene and its circumstances. Beyond that point, if the day arrived that a story of mine appeared on television or the big screen where all those intense moments were exposed to the scrutiny of large audiences, I myself would not be able to watch.