A. called me late in the evening. She was maybe 14 and was nearly hysterical. A. has always had two powerful forces in her: a pragmatic sense of what must be done battles in her with fierce emotions that drive her decision making. Her mother had locked herself in the bathroom to have a bath after the two of them had been in a mighty battle over I can’t remember what and A. was choking on sobs because her mother was crying in there and A. knew she had caused all that hurt. And once I heard her side of the story – a truthful-from-her-perspective retelling – I had to agree: she had caused all that hurt. And she wanted to make it right, right then; she wanted to ‘fix’ her mom, to make her mom strong enough to handle the horrid things she’d said to the woman; she wanted to somehow, in that moment, put her mom back together without actually acknowledging that her actions had caused the pain in the first place. She wanted to go back in time and undo what she’d done without having to acknowledge that she shouldn’t have done it. Her pride (a third formidable force in her little being) prevented her from quite apologizing just yet but her sense of pragmatism understood that she couldn’t just watch this deterioration of relationship and her emotions were, well, all over the map.
Feelings are real, but not true. Emotions are necessary parts of us. We need them to be fully human. We cannot express our outrage and horror about the bombings at this year’s Boston Marathon without having an emotional response. Sometimes it’s the emotional response that is the only appropriate response: words and rational thoughts need to sit on the back burner, sometimes, while we reach out emotionally to others, holding them close in our own compassion and grief and rage, until the moment has passed and it’s time again for reasonable action.
Reasonable Action. I don’t even know if that can happen, truly, until all the emotion has been acknowledged, and given due respect, and honoured.
I don’t mean we should fully vent our emotions on people. Some emotions, like the ones driving A. that day to say unspeakable things to the woman who loves her, should be held in check, and shut down, and forbidden any authority. Not ignored, perhaps, nor bottled and throttled, but certainly there is wisdom in not speaking or acting on rage, insult, pride… not immediately.
We – are – so – fickle!
So yesterday I had one of the worst professional days I’ve had in a long time. Some decisions were made that directly impacted my authority and effectiveness in my classroom, and undermined my intuitive, professional judgment. I was overridden. I was furious. Inarticulately furious.
A decision I’d made had been questioned. I, not expecting the question, was unable to clearly express my reasons (which I had thought out in detail previously!) – but so many things we do as experienced teachers are intuitive – and in that moment I felt myself stammering. Certainly stammering does nothing to give the appearance of professional judgment. And absolutely people have a right to question me, to ask ‘why’, to want reasonable explanations for anything I do in my role as teacher. Accountability for actions is a foundational layer in professionalism. Heck! In Democracy!! I embrace it.
But for goodness sake, if you throw a curveball at someone (anyone! Child or adult!) give that person a moment to process the context of the thing! I, having been pulled out of my classroom and questioned in the hallway, while a small group of students were in the hallway reading and small groups were in the classroom trying to organize themselves, was so busy trying to nail down the context of the questioning that I …. I stammered.
And the decision I had made earlier was questioned. I tried to explain, ineffectually (the little self-monitoring voice in the back of my head was screaming, “Speak English, Woman!”) and I knew I wasn’t giving all the information required for my friend to fully grasp what I was telling him. He, on the other hand, wasn’t particularly interested in all the required information as he was driving his own agenda right then.
Now, before you think I’m trashing this guy online, let me be clear: he is a fine person. One of the best I’ve worked with in 23 years of teaching. However, no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws or oversights, or errs. Occasionally he and I differ philosophically. This particular incident is one of those times. The end result is that he had his agenda; I had my reasons; he pressed his point with questions which I answered like a confused defendant in a witness box; and he won.
The details are moot. The point here is that I ended up feeling undermined, dis-empowered, and deconstructed.
When I was newly married there was an argument. Hours afterwards I was sitting on the sofa, head in my hands, trembling from the aftermath of many ginormous emotions, and right out loud asked, “Why am I so angry?” I have no idea what you all think of God, where you stand on ‘voices’ that grant you wisdom or personal insight. But here’s my story: God spoke to me clearly and without hesitation. He said, “You aren’t angry. You are hurt.”
Hurt. I sat there for a half hour and had it explained to me by the Voice of Wisdom in my head Who told me that I have never responded to hurt with tears. When I am ‘hurt’, meaning when I feel any vulnerable and unsafe feeling, I respond with anger. First and without thought. My first response is anything from indignation to utter rage. My ‘fight or flight’ response goes directly to ‘fight’.
I had no idea!!
With more experience I can recognize that I also do ‘flight’. I deny. I cover up. I hide from the reality of whatever ugly is boxing its way through my walls. In my deepest interior self, I cringe. I cower. I cover my eyes. Looking at my soft, hurting parts … well, it hurts. I’d rather not. It’s easy to make so much clamour with my fighting exterior self that my interior Me hasn’t any quiet to process the squishy, bruised things – I fly from them. I punch back with my exterior self: words, mostly, though I’ve been known to slam a hand on a table or test a door’s hinges. Like A., who wanted her mother to be stronger so she, A., could ‘fight’ and not hurt her tender-hearted mom, I want to beat on my squishy self, “Be stronger! Stop whining! Buck up and deal with hard things!!” – it’s easier that way – then I only have to ‘fight’ and never have to face my own vulnerabilities.
So, yesterday, being furious, I went about my job. Which, if you haven’t understood in this post and haven’t read previous posts, I have to tell you – I love. I love my job. So it wasn’t too difficult to throw myself into my work and focus on my students.
I was not at my best. Far far from it. I was disorganized in my thoughts; I was flustered about my plans; I was out of my routines and put papers down in places I didn’t think to look for them and had to have students point out to me what I was just trying to say. In the back of my mind were feelings, unacknowledged and unprocessed, messing with all my rational systems.
Now, get this: my last class of the day is Psychology. And in this class we were discussing the difference between the brain and the mind. Fascinating stuff, for sure! The lesson planned was in the much despised lecture format but I had a lot of information to dispense and am a few days behind in my unit due to school events pushing things back a bit. The students asked questions (love that!) and we ended up talking about the amygdala and hippocampus – how emotions are really chemicals that get squirted through the brain, drenching all our little sensitive neurons in whatever neurotransmitters are created when we are …. furious, say.
Neuroscience has evidence that clearly indicates that rational thought both requires and is inhibited by strong emotions. Without a good assessment of our values, often indicated to us by emotional responses, we are quite literally stalled in decision making. But while those strong emotions are dancing on our neurons our frontal lobe is unable to make rational, reasonable decisions.
There. That’s where I was at.
After school I had C. (from the previous post if you’re following) for an hour – we went over her assignments in detail and retaught some skills. And then I had a few minutes before meeting a friend for supper to run errands. Supper with my friend centered largely on my recent trip to New York (see previous post again) where she has also visited and we swapped stories. Then home to take care of household details and at 8:00 a phone appointment with another friend who lives far enough away to warrant Phone Dates and we talked about all kinds of things and I hung up the phone exhausted. No time to process those emotions. Went to bed. Tired. Dreamed.
I was fumbling with my keys outside my classroom door, having trouble accessing my own space. Once I got in all my students were already there in their desks, waiting, literally – hands folded, faces forward, blank expressions. I looked around confused. This certainly was my classroom but someone had torn the bulletin boards down. In particular, the one at the back. The black background material was gone, with remnants shredded at the edges and on the floor. The board itself in reality is made of a kind of corkboard, but this board was white, like gyp-rock, with gouges running through it, as though a trowel had raked the black fabric off. Posters and student work had been put back on, but not my posters, nor my students’ work. There were agendas and schedules and organizational charts, randomly stuck on the board and I couldn’t read them from where I was standing. The students didn’t know anything about it and I stood there, stunned, confused, wondering what had happened to all my careful constructions.
I woke up frustrated. Not furious again, but with a simmering anger. Resentment. And I ‘constructed’ the conversation that has to happen later today with my colleague. That exact conversation won’t happen, of course: another more sane one will. This one was merely a processing tool. I have to acknowledge all the emotions, one by one, letting them come forward and say their piece, giving them time to fit themselves together into something that my rational mind can explain. Articulately. Not for anyone else. For me. I have to understand what I’m saying to me.
Feelings are real. They cannot be ignored. That would be a lie. And a self-destructive one at that.
But they are not true. My feeling insulted does not mean my friend set out to insult me. My feeling undermined does not mean my students will disregard me. My wanting to bellow the full force of my frustration until the hair on the man’s head flies backward does not mean this is a wise course of action. Feelings cannot dictate my actions, or rule over my decisions. My friend does not need full exposure to every feeling I feel. He’s a good person. We differ philosophically sometimes and we’ll need a rational, reasonable discussion to address this issue.
A., on the day she called me in tears, her mother sobbing in the bathtub, had no idea at her young age how to manage the full force of her emotions. They came at her like the monster in her closet, and raked at her rational self until she was in shreds. My advice to her: let your mother cry for a short while; go to your room and do your own crying. Your crying is your business and hers is hers. And after you’ve spent some time with your emotions, and your mother has put herself back together, and you can think in a straight line, have a reasonable conversation. Apologize. You can tell her how you feel, but you can’t use those feelings to bludgeon her back into the bathtub.
Because feelings are real – never ignore them – but they are not true, and you shouldn’t obey them either.