Reticence: The Anglo-American Suppression of Emotion

A frame from the famous musical number “Singin’ in the Rain, later in the scene a policeman stops his joyous dancing

One of the sad facts of our culture is that expressions of emotion are likely to viewed with derision or fear or, when not dangerous, get the cops called or HR involved. Sorrow, laughter, anger, joy, longing, and many more are feared when manifested outside the confines of a therapist’s office. Last time I cried into someone’s shoulder in college, the Dean of Students’ office was contacted and I got in trouble (it was just a warning), the basis of the charge filed was that I had burdened someone with my emotional baggage which was unfair to them. That’s not a hyperbole, in October 2017 someone literally reported me to our vice principal’s office for crying into someone’s shoulder. People are unfairly expected to conduct themselves with a nonchalance in public in almost every circumstance. Even in the context of romance, a nonchalance is expected as the gushy and classic stuff I’m into is frowned upon. Mainstream romance has moved to an ever more masculine and pornographic state where it lacks the serotonin and anything gentle and/or histrionic in favor of the purely animalistic pursuit of dopamine.

Daily life then loses its theater. The triumphs and tragedies of our otherwise mundane hours are unable to be reacted to humanly. To be human is to look mad. I agree that it is mad but mild madness is needed for general sanity. If people are forced into reticence then they are less able to work through whatever pains are inside of them. People must be able to make what is inside of them outside even if it looks a little crazy. People need to be able to have brain farts, anxiety attacks, sobbing fits, and more without the public being afraid. Furthermore, people should be allowed to be excited and positively animated without being judged harshly. Even modern poetry tries to avoid intense emotion. It tries to be cool and not care because emotion is something apparently we gave up when history ended. Francis Fukuyama was wrong and history never ended and the human story that is history warrants intense emotion all the time. Every second lives beat the odds and survive and every second lives are prematurely lost, literally and metaphorically.

One of the greatest advantages evolution gifted our species that it denied all of the others was the ability to be emotional and poetic. To divorce ourselves from the psychological realism genre that other animals live in to a surreal paradigm of metaphor and meaning and feeling. One of the most fun aspects of having a religion, as I do, is that there is subtext and symmetry to the universe, physical and metaphysical. I could never be an atheist, I was one a long time ago but my brain just cannot tolerate positivist realism and inevitably falls into a magical surrealism in short order. This doesn’t mean I joined religion purely for its theatrical qualities, I do believe. It is to say that having a poetic and surrealist mind let me see metaphors others do not. Religion, itself, loses its immensity and awesomeness if it abandons the magical surrealism. As churches become ever more contemporary, a trend I fully support (except architecturally), they need to ensure they keep the Baroque Era theory that religious aesthetics’ purpose is to evoke the depth of the divine.

If we fear emotion and everything psychological becomes psychotic then we will lose many things from more of our sanity to our ability to be human with one another. The angels and demons of the human condition need to be brought to daylight if the angels are to win and their battlefield is the human soul and human psyche. What haunts us, both benevolently and malevolently, should be exposed both on a personal level and more broadly than that. If there is no outlet for a little madness then the caged and tortured souls unable to express it will fester in their own slumps until they break one way or another. The world will become much safer, more forgiving, and kinder if we tolerate and embrace each other’s emotions and benign emotional outbursts. We need to focus on creating a world that humans can be human in.

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