Like a B-Rate Romance

Trying to sift through your music library can have strange effects on you.

For instance, I’m coming around to the fact that I will spend the rest of my life, to some extent, as a reactionary. I seem to have a hugely negative response to points of view I used to have, but have no longer. In other words, I’ve actually changed my mind about some things, and now the things I used to love, I hate. So I run up against some of my old way of viewing the world, and I’m set on a rampage to argue with my former self, to set him to rights about the world.

I can’t tell if I’m preaching to the choir, or arguing with an intractable opponent. Sometimes my old self seems to agree with me quickly, and catches up to my current state of mind. But at the same time, I see my past self continuing to think the old way – because he’s in the past. Internal dialogue has never been a very effective means of time travel.

Here’s my current diatribe: emotions. I’m totally for them, but I have some concerns. The funny thing about emotions is their relationship with reality. Emotions themselves are real – as emotions, that is. If you’re angry or sad, you really are angry or sad, and it would be silly for someone to tell you otherwise. But emotions have only a vague correlation to the rest of the world as it really is. I mean, if you’re hot and sweaty, the most likely reason is that it’s hot out. Other options include the possibility that you’ve been working out, or that you have a fever, which means that you are sick. If you are physically in pain, chances are that you’ve been wounded in some way. Not so with emotions. If I’m sad, the world is not necessarily a sad place. Something truly saddening may have happened to me – my dog may have died. Or it could be that I’ve thought of something sad that happened 20 years ago. Or I could be reading a book. I have every reason to expect that my emotions are not connected to any real situation in the external world.

Most people are aware of this at some level, though from talking to people, you might think otherwise. There’s a terrible tendency for people to think that their emotions are perfect lodestones to point them in the direction of right and wrong. My emotions are holy. So-and-so made me feel a certain way, therefore so-and-so owes it to me to correct my emotions for me. I myself bear no responsibility for how I feel, and what’s more, how I feel is the most perfect description of who I am! Down that path, darkness lies.

This leads to another concept: Emotions, because they are so easily affected by imaginary situations, are extremely malleable. With a little practice, I can control how I feel. (More wickedly, with a little practice, I can even control how other people feel.) Now this is an idea that really appeals to my personality. It just so happens that I have extremely strong, extremely stable emotions.

I once decided that some issues at work dictated that I should get angry more often. It took me about two weeks to get there, and then I stayed on the cusp of rage for the better part of a month, before I decided it wasn’t a very effective tactic. So I turned it off. More stupidly, when I was in junior high school, my version of oggling the girls was to attempt to analyse their personalities and imagine how much I would have to adjust my own personality in order to get on as a couple… and how long I could keep it up before it wasn’t worth the effort. Of course, I fell for the girl I couldn’t “read”. It went badly.

Most people don’t spend much time working their emotions like an Adonis at the gym. But there is a huge industry of “personal trainers” who will tell you how to adjust your emotions so that you can be in tune with yourself and handle difficult situations better. So, when I was growing up, there were always books floating around the house with tips on how to handle certain emotions. I think that’s where I picked up the concept that certain emotions are always good, and other emotions are always bad. Anger is always bad. Peacefulness is always good. Shame is always bad. Brassiness is always good. That’s the idea I bought as a kid, that ended in catastrophe, and now I hates it forever.

See, in the churches I grew up in, spiritual ecstacy was an emotion that fell in the category of “always good.” Every other emotion, aside from perhaps general happiness and peacefulness, was a curse from the enemy and ought to be “broken off” from the afflicted saint. At first blush, this sounds like a good idea. I mean, name a Christian who is against spiritual ecstacy. On the other hand, imagine a community where most everyone enters into a state of spiritual ecstacy on a regular basis, where fear and doubt and shame are signs of something deep and intrensically wrong with you. I hope you can see where this is going. Keep in mind that I am pretty darn good at setting my emotions on a goal and hitting that goal regularly for long periods of time. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that a fiercely emotional prayer life doesn’t necessarily lead to successful relationships, improved character, or even a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

I burned out pretty hard.

I Just couldn’t do it any more. And then came the strange enui of being unable to relate to people around me (still on their spiritual highs), or find confidence in the God of my salvation. I knew emotions were shaky things, and yet I had managed to set my entire identity in my consistent experience of certain emotions. As the kids say these days, epic fail!

Putting myself back together again took a bit of work, and involved revamping my entire theology, worldview, personal goals, dating preferences, the works. Even now sometimes, I feel a little bit like Calvin Coolidge when the young lady told him she had made a bet with a friend that she could get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” he said. People try to get me riled up about something and… I don’t rile. Please submit your reasons why I should feel this emotion on form 3215-B, in triplicate, and come back to me in a week. By then I’ll have decided whether or not to feel… offended, was it? Anyway, I’ll get back to you. Surprise holidays are a real pain. So are goodbyes.

Understand, I’m not a wooden, emotionless guy. But, “I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.” There a lot going on up in here, and external inputs on how I ought to feel are a real distraction.

So, music. Again, I’m totally for it, but I have some concerns. Music has one truly great function: to direct and amplify the emotions. It’s wonderful stuff, unless you shiv it like a sledgehammer. I keep running across stuff that I think I was supposed to like ten years ago, but now it hits me like a B-rate romance. IT’S TIME TO FEEL PASSIONATE, BECAUSE WE’RE MAKING LONG EMOTIONAL SOUNDS!!!!!1! Yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s a sound that’s supposed to happen when two people, who love each other very much, are alone together. It is not a sound I want to hear at church, and It’s not a sound I want to suddenly come on my stereo while I’m trying to get the kids to help set the dinner table. That’s a sound they’ll figure out on their own. When they’re older. I don’t really need to explain right now why is she making that sound, papa.

As the Preacher said, there’s a time for everything, and every emotion under the sun has its place. Music is there to help us get to the right emotions. I just don’t have any use for music that tries to force my emotions into a groove that isn’t exactly appropriate to the circumstances, or even the context of the song. It isn’t powerful; it’s just annoying. Give me thick, clear-headed stuff. Give me something with a reason.

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