The Under-world of Emotion: Troubled waters run deep


And so begin the opening lines of the anthology, Poems that make grown men cry:

“weeping betrays not only vulnerability but also an openness that is contagious. Yet so often we try to hide our tears when caught out or in public, as if it is embarrassing to be around such raw tenderness. This is perhaps especially true for those of us who are men…

… Despite the male tear duct being larger than the female, studies have consistently shown that from around the age of ten a divergence occurs and thereafter boys cry far less than girls. Whether that is down to cultural or biological reasons or both, the sad truth is that the male of our species has not always been allowed to cry. Tears may have been venerated in European cultures during the nineteenth century as a sign of high moral character, but, these days, they are all too hastily wiped away.

We want to put paid to that with this anthology. We hope that readers may set each other off as they read these verses aloud to one another… let’s celebrate high emotion! Together, let’s express our shared humanity, whatever your gender, background, or circumstance. However grievous at times, let these pages console you, if upset, lift you, if down; I defy you not to be inspired by them…”

“Our contributor’s words are their tears”, reflect the editors, and their grief is transformed into words, into poetry; the power of poetry.

“When I write a poem I am trying to make sense out of life”, shares C. Day Lewis, one of Britain’s leading poets. And how often does life seem to just not make sense; how often do we feel overwhelmed or at a loss for words; our internal world a turbulence of emotions, chaotic, frenzied, seemingly untameable. We struggle to understand and we struggle to find the words and sometimes, we even struggle to find an audience; ever elusive, ever judging.

Silent waters run deep… troubled waters run deeper. The surface may appear calm, the waters gentle, the face composed, the demeanour calm, and yet, deep in the caverns of the underground, it is all but calm. A storm of emotion rages. And men, so they say, avoid, squash or battle the storm. They ‘man up’ or do their best to stay in control; beholden to pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we go at it alone and, at times, things do not go well. We drown. We rage. We lash out. We shut down. We numb.

“The traditional strong silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves,” states Jane Powell, chief executive of the ‘Campaign Against Living Miserably’ (CALM). And taking this conversation further, one finds arguments about masculinity, toxic masculinity and emotional illiteracy.

And yet, masculinity is not a thing that can be boxed in or easily pinned down, but rather, “masculinity has its uncertainty, permutations, transformations, viscerality, imagination, creativity, sensuousness, irrationality, and movement; it is an attempt to rationalise, control, contain, and hide the dynamic wave-like motion of the spatial, biological, psychological and sociological assemblages that are its lived context” (Clifton Evers). Understanding masculinity as something that is always emerging in the here and now, as never static, may come closest to reality. Masculinity is felt and experienced, as much as it is acted out and performed; but it also has a history, a lived history.

As there are different masculinities so there are different ways of relating to emotional lives.

And yet, I believe that as a society we are coming to realize that often men feel that they have to conceal their vulnerabilities if they are not to “lose face” in front of others. They have learned that emotions are a sign of weakness and that male identities are to be affirmed through showing self-control. In fact, young men sometimes find it easier to take their own lives than to reach out for help to those around them. They do not want to share what is troubling them or the sources of their depression which they might not know themselves. They can feel so bad about themselves that they might even imagine that it could only be worse if they dared to show their feelings to others. With suicide, those who are left are often shocked that they knew so little of what was going on for the young man they loved as a friend or part of the family.

Men often feel that it is harder to lift the phone to reach out when they are down than when they are feeling good about themselves. This seems to hold across class, where men often seem to have less access to their emotional lives than women. Masculinities become performative (are acted out) often as a way of concealing inner emotional turmoil from others. If there is a fear about how young men are to cope, often this is a fear they hide from themselves. They can take refuge in the notion that as long as they remain unspoken and others do not know, these emotions are not real and might disappear just as they arrived. Vulnerabilities are often hidden as men can feel they should somehow be able to handle their own emotions so as not to be more shamed, especially in conditions where they can feel that their masculinities are all they have left as sources of self-esteem. This leads to an important conversation on masculinity, stigma and male victims of sexual assault.

This, of course, is not the full picture; life is more complex than this, and yet, it is a useful generalization, for it is then, that we can begin to ask, what do we do? How do we think about this phenomenon? How are we implicated?

For this, I want to turn to a discussion on affect and emotion. The two terms are not the same, although they are often used interchangeably.

“Emotions are usefully understood as the tangible, visible manifestations of affect; emotions are the most intense/direct capture of affect in communicable and expressive terms. Our emotions reveal our affect and articulate that for which words are never quite enough. They make visible the affects we are subjected to and through which we become who we are. In this sense, emotions are then affects as clothed in a language so that we can communicate and make visible that which would otherwise remain painfully incommunicable, our affective disposition” (Dewsbury).

But what then is affect? Affect can be said to broadly refer to both a state of being as well as to intensities of attachment. All of our lived experiences to date, all of our memories and mental connections, all of what life has done to us and how we have moved through life, all of it, comes together and all of it connects us to others, and provides us with a way of narrating our lives (likes, dislikes, desires and revulsions) to ourselves and others.

Our current state of being is therefore informed by who we are and have become through time. Our past affective experiences, leaving a trace in our constitution, are remembered in the moment of responding to a new situation that presents itself; and as it presents itself, we attach particular affects (likes, dislikes, desires, revulsions, etc,) to it that vary with intensity.

For example, growing up I lived in a very humid part of Africa and to this day I remember how thick, moist and heavy the air felt around me, how it covered and flowed around my body; how it made the soil smell in a very particular way. Upon visiting after a long absence and stepping off the plane, I was hit by humid, thick air and I recognized it and it made me feel happy. I had to smile… my childhood memories flooded in. I had attached positive feelings towards my time growing up, and this knowledge remained with me and was triggered when I stepped off the plane. My emotion – the smile, the laugh -, revealed my underworld, my affective state, my state of being.

The intensities with which we attach to particular places, objects, people, sensations, etc illustrate “the multiplicity of ways in which we are anchored in our lives, the ways we belong or feel that we belong at certain places and along certain trajectories… and thus why and how we might orient ourselves in relation to certain attachments, sometimes in what seems to be a contradictory fashion” (Da Costa).

Current studies on childhood development, for example, argue that “extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy childhood development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body (especially the brain), with damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan”.

What the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard calls the ‘toxic stress response’, can occur when a child “experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support”. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems, so they argue, can “disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years”. The cumulative toll that results can have lifetime implications, with a greater likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.

The traumatized child is anchored in a very particular way in life and feels belonging and relationship in unique, often seemingly irrational ways.

Traumatizing affective experiences leave their traces and influence the state of being that a child inhabits and how it will interact with the world. One can talk about Post Traumatic Stress in children and see, for example, how particular environments, people, noises, smells or colors that are associated with the trauma trigger seemingly irrational responses; irrational only because we cannot see beneath the surface or understand why a particular song may invoke fear rather than happiness, or why a particular word, produces anguish. The world of affect is complex and much remains invisible to us.

It is interesting that we often feel something before we can actually explain ‘why’ we feel as we do; we feel angry, fearful, joyful, excited, disgusted, proud, ashamed, etc and then more or less successfully reason out the ‘why’ of it afterwards. Political theorists know this all too well and use it to their advantage.

Politics is gut, so goes the expression. Frank Luntz, political strategist framed it in the following way: “80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it’s something that’s inside you. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that’s what I need to understand”.

The ‘deeper’ part that Luntz is speaking to is our state of being and it is from here that we attach affects to, for example, politicians and their campaigns.

One can therefore make a distinction between thought or cognitive attunement and affect or affective attunement. We register the world as an affective modality (a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed) and it is often by listening to the body that we come to know if “something has changed, or needs to change…. Our bodies shiver, heat up, cool down, agitate, cry, shake, and the like… when cultural rules and social norms deeply embedded in our bodies have been disturbed, or new conditions are unsuitable or challenging (Clifton Evers).

The sensation that something is or feels wrong can be fast, or it may emerge over time. Regardless, it demands our attention and we then may or may not engage with it or know how best to do so. Our body is a language, it is a way of thinking; it is sensual (pertaining to the senses) and we can speak of the sensual life of masculinity.

As we grow up and as our affective experiences build up to make us into who we are continuously becoming, social messages about masculinity impact us and get mixed into the fray. While our subjectivity, or who we are and what we therefore do, is shaped by numerous elements and experiences, messages about how to be a man – how to act, feel, appear and relate -., shape our affects (likes, dislikes, desires, revulsions, etc.) and impact our future affective attachments and their intensities.

I may, for example, attach intense feelings of dislike/discomfort to ‘being vulnerable’ since in the past I may have experienced it as accompanied by feelings of shame and isolation (e.g. if my parents chided me for crying or expressing fears, yelling ‘grow up and be a man!’ or ‘don’t be such a baby! And me then feeling a lack of care, understanding and love, mixed in with shame for not living up to their valued expectations of me).

An intense negative attachment to the state of ‘being vulnerable’ might then lead a person to deny such feelings, squelch them, buck-up, or one might become angry for being such a ‘whimp’ and lash out; perhaps hurting others in the process. Being vulnerable is a confusing enough place to be in without all the negative affects that traditional masculinity furthermore attaches to it. We don’t need that! It is anything but healthy.

“Men may learn how to control emotions, such as learning not to cry, but they cannot ‘intend to feel love or fear or anger … or turn them off at will’. Emotional training due to gendered expectations can mean men appear stoic, even though they are not really. To stop affects would be like trying to stop breathing. You can hold your breath in an attempt to wrestle control of your body back, but the body’s breathing reflex will eventually demand its place in what is happening” (Clifton Evers).

The story becomes more complex if we then also consider how other parts of our social identities come into play. We are not just men. We live an embodied intersection of gender, class, race, ethnicity, ability, age, sexuality, etc.

In ‘He cries alone: Black men and PTSD’, the author speaks to how race and gender intersect for black men, who are impacted by their socialization as men as well as by institutional racism.

“Some black men, because of how they are socialized, think that people with mental health problems should snap out of it and literally pull themselves up by their bootstraps… this attitude is particularly pronounced in military cultures” where PTSD is prevalent; “brothers won’t go in to a doctor until they see some blood,” reports an activist.

Now factor in institutional racism: the criminalization of mental health as it relates to black communities and disparities in treatment; and many African-American men are reluctant to go to the doctor because of misdiagnosis or mistreatment.

This has historic roots. Dr. William Lawson, chair of the department of Howard University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences explains: “We did testing and many people didn’t see PTSD as a black person’s disease because of racist notions; PTSD assumes that a person has insight and sensitivity. People assume that black people are invulnerable, that we do not have a functional apparatus to experience any kind of mood complexity.”

This all leads us to understand how black men in the United States have a different affect towards health care, government policies, race relations, etc than white men (to say nothing about class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc… the picture gets muddled); and with good cause. Not understanding this leads to, for example, a misdiagnosis by psychiatrists. This, I would hope, ought to stimulate a conversation about racial bias and buried prejudice, or in other words: “Deep within our subconscious, all of us harbor biases that we may consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them.”

Where does this leave us? Perhaps the recognition that emotion is a critical language with which we express our unique inner states may make us want to become more emotionally literate and to be more expansive in our emotional vocabulary. Anger, a stereotypical male emotion, is but one emotion. I do not want to discredit anger, because in many situations it is an appropriate response and gets us through the day; “stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for; it is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt” (David Whyte).

And yet, anger is not the only emotion available to us men. Sadness and vulnerability, amongst the many other emotions that are part of our natural inheritance, are not something one should abhor or avoid: they are part of what makes us human; through emotion we connect with others and reveal ourselves and our desires; we become/are present, authentic, and real. This is us; raw. A rich combobulation of experiences, feelings and emotions.

A storm of emotion rages in the underground. Let us together meet it, embrace it, dance with it and rise through it and from it, to become more truly ourselves, more whole, more integrated, more connected.

For “the first act of violence patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women… the first act of violence patriarchy requires from men is that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation” ~ bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love


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