“How are you feeling?”. Isn’t that a weird question when you really think about it? It’s like asking “How are you seeing?” or “how are you smelling?”. Science, with all its wonders, has made us focus so much on the question of “how” that we ask “how we feel” instead of “what we feel”. But “what” we feel is arguably a more important question than “how” we feel. Just as understanding howsomething works, like gravity, allows us to ask the question “why does it work like that?”, so does “what am I feeling” allow us to ask the question “why am I feeling like this?”. And each such why is a step towards knowing our true selves, if we are brave enough to answer that “why” truthfully.
I used to control my emotions a lot. Keep them pushed so far down that I didn’t have to feel them. I trained in so many ways. I love amusement parks, and one of my favorite rides is the Drop Tower, you know, the one where they pull you up to the top and suddenly drop you. Apart from the fact that the ride triggered my fear of heights, there was the added dread of no control of when they drop you. Some of these rides take a photo of the riders right after the drop. In that moment, it’s rather hard to not convey any emotion with your voice, let alone with your face, but I have a photo where I look completely bored next to my friend whose face shows all the excitement he felt at that exact moment. I was proud over not showing emotion even in the most distressing/exhilarating situations. I knew this was what men did – see, the dangers of knowledge? – men did not express emotions. They controlled them. I practiced hard, and I got so good at it, that when I saw Brokeback Mountain at the movies, I didn’t bat an eyelash during the movie, nor on the car ride home. But as soon as I closed the door to the studio where I lived alone, I broke down and cried for three hours. I cried in that heartbroken way that I hadn’t done since I was twelve, when I came home from my last year at the summer camp where I had spent three weeks a year for a quarter of my life. This is the curse of the modern man: there’s no evidence that men feel less than women, yet we are expected not to show our feelings. Boy’s don’t cry, and a man is so far removed from a boy that a grown man crying is sometimes equated to a little girl in culture (especially in comedy). So I practiced controlling my emotions, and I became a master of it. It came to a point when wasn’t sure I had that many emotions. After all, if you cannot put a name to it, does it really exist?
This is the problem with controlling your feelings: you become unable to name them. You need to be able to name emotions to sort them, to untangle them and to convey them. To process them so you don’t get stuck. When we’re born, we are capable of feeling a rainbow of e born even if are unable name them. We have no egos yet, no impulse control and so we act on our emotions. When we feel pain, or are hungry, we cry. When we’re surprised by the universe, we laugh. Not knowing about object permanence can result in the most amusing surprises. Just look at any baby playing peekaboo. See, knowledge. Can’t live with it, can’t die without it.
As we grow up, we learn to identify and name more and more complex feelings. This is anger. This is sadness. This is love. This is lust. What is happiness? We learn of combinations of feelings, like melancholy. Feelings, just like colors, can blend to create new feelings or colors. The feeling of the coziness you feel when you’re having dinner with two of your best friends in your favorite homey restaurant is called “gezellig” in Dutch, “hygge” in Danish and “mysigt” in Swedish. The feeling of joy you feel when you see someone you like but haven’t seen in a long time is called “gjensynsglede”. Feelings are contextual, and some feelings describe a chain of events, like “vemödalen”: it starts with experiencing something exceptionally beautiful, like a magnificent sunset or the fjords of Norway, and you try to photograph it, which turns into frustration as you realize that there are thousands of identical photos of this, which makes the amazing subject suddenly feel hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture that you happen to have assembled yourself. Some emotions are such a complex mix that it takes years to understand them. Liget is such an emotion. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo found this emotion in 1967, when he and his wife Shelly visited the ilongot tribe in the Philippines. It took fourteen years, and the tragic, accidental death of his wife Shelly for him to grasp the emotion liget.
Since we’re talking about new words for contextual emotions, I’d like to talk about another new word: “ställtid”. It’s the Swedish word for the time you spend between tasks to be able to write notes, clean up or prepare for the next task. Emotions typically have “ställtid” too. It’s hard to jump from sadness to joy in no time without any event that triggers the change. Even empathy has “ställtid”. When you’re surprised by an event, it takes about seven seconds before the empathic part of your brain kicks in. This is why it’s always wise to slowly count to ten when you get angry, so that you give yourself a chance to be empathic.
We are taught to stop acting on our feelings, which in many cases is a useful skill. Like not acting on your anger, because when you act angry, you also become more angry. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy works so well for many people: actions, feelings and thoughts influence each other and so acting angry will make you feel angry. If you hear a something breaking in your house late at night, thinking “someone’s breaking in!” and “oh no, the cat must have pushed something off the table” triggers two different emotions. Feeling angry at someone begets thoughts of more reasons that your anger is justified.
But if we throw out the baby with the bathwater and stop acting on the feelings we want to foster, like love, we lose our connection to it. This is what has happened to large parts of the world. After all, feelings cannot be described – they must be experienced. Acting is experiencing, but above all: acting is contagious. How do you get someone to like you? You start by liking them. If you really like a person after hanging out with them, chances are that feeling is mutual.
We are born capable of such rich emotional lives with endless nuances. As we grow, our family and society teach us to identify and name some of those feelings. The labels are an attempt to create stable borders around certain hues of specific feelings. It’s oversimplifying and controlling at the same time, but we need ourselves and others to be predictable, to be stable and feelings aren’t. They are in constant flux, mixing, waxing and waning, creating mixes we can only feel and never name. But we need to have predictability and so we say this is ‘love’ — or rather, we describe how love makes us feel and act, and hope that everyone feels and acts the same in love — and create a handy and simple label. We took one of the most powerful emotions we humans are capable of, and put it a straightjacket designed by some Nordic minimalist collective named Fjättra (with that a with two dots over it). This is why we can love so many different things. Partners. Hobbies. Children. Movies. Knowledge. Ourselves. Putting the label ‘love’ on that potent an emotion is like watching photos of a particularly magnificent sunset instead of being there in person. It’s Vemödalen-by-proxy.
I have always experienced emotions in technicolor – even the bland gray of depression has shades, dull as they are – but until that Saturday in June last year, when I lost my fear of not having control, until that day I was only able express these technicolor emotions in grayscale words.
The feeling that has scared me the most is love. It’s so immensely powerful, capable of inspiring us to be our best selves both as individuals and as species. At the same time: it means that it has an equally powerful opposite, one that is seductive with its ease and rewards. I thought I knew what love was back when sixteen-year-old Past-Michael fell in love for the first time. But that was just one of the layers of love: infatuation, physical attraction, lust. I didn’t learn what comes next, once the relationship leaves that state and reveals the layers beneath. I think this is one of our problems with love: we cannot put words to this amazing, powerful feeling, and so we describe what it makes us do: buy things, spend time, have sex (which we call “making love” as if love could be fabricated). But we also tell stories how it makes us lie, betray and kill. And that is what love makes us do before it has turned into hate. Love is so complicated that until we have really experienced it, we keep revisiting stories that try to explain it, in hope of realizing whether we ever have been in true love. If this was The Matrix, those stories would be to us, what the Oracle is to Neo.
In the scene where they meet, the Oracle points to a sign saying “Temet nosce” and says “You know what that means? It’s Latin. Means “Know thyself”. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Being The One is just like being in love. No one can tell you your’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”
And once we experience love, we realize that the Oracle was right, You can’t be told, you just know. And once you realize what it truly is, you’ll realize that you’ve had it all along. It may have been shown to you in the most horrible way, like physical or psychological abuse, but when you’re unprepared and incapable of experiencing the full force of love, it puts stress on your being that can make you do the most horrible things. Love is a force much similar to the strongest fundamental force of nature: the strong force (the other are gravity, the weak force and electromagnetism). The strong force can give us life in the form of the sun, and death in the form of Little Boy and Fat Man.
I didn’t get the chance to experience the deeper layers of love until my current relationship. I spent the 34 years before I met my husband as a single. Sure, I dated, and I consulted the Oracle about love countless times, but I still had no idea. I had spent most of my adult life as a single on the prowl, and going out to a club was associated with chasing mr. Right or at least mr. Right Now. This created a struggle in me during the first years of our relationship. I had spent so much time enjoying the hunt, that I had forgotten that you could simply go to the club to have fun. It took me a long time to find a reason for going out clubbing, to find out who this new me was in the club context
I had to get to know my new self, in addition to getting to know the guy I was so madly in love with, and allow him to get to know not only my old self, but also the new self that I was discovering. It’s funny, how I used to look for shared interests on dates. It’s human to want to bond with people we like, and bonding requires common ground. I thought interests was a perfect common ground for a relationship, but had I met my husband under more traditional circumstances, I might have thought “we have too different interests”. He likes the outdoors, swimming, sports. He runs marathons and listens to hipsterish bands like Mumford and Sons, or to artists like Junglepussy and Lizzo (he can actually sing most of her hits, and it’s amazing). I like video games, technology, being a complete psychonaut and the only label you really can put on my taste in music is “music I like”. I’m like the Stephen King to his Bear Grylls. We’re so different, that my husband once described himself as a cat, and me as a Golden Retriever-type-dog at a nail party we went to. A nail party is when you throw a party and offer the guests a wide selection of fake nails. Everyone has to put on at least one fake, glamorous nail (although at least a whole hand is encouraged), all in honor of Alaska’s famous quote: “If you’re not wearing nails, you’re not doing drag”. Maybe our differences just prove that Paula Abdul and that cartoon cat were right when they sang “Opposites attract”. But at the same time, we have so much in common, me and my husband. Our values, the people we love, our love for experiences and adventure, our love for each other.
I was afraid of thinking too much about my love for Michael (yes, my husbands name is the same as mine, but it doesn’t cause nearly as much confusion as you’d think since people use the Swedish short version, Micke, for me, and the English, Mike, for my husband) – I was afraid of thinking too much about my love for Mike once the infatuation started to fade. I had no idea what came after that, and I was afraid that if I looked, I would only find a memory of the infatuation. Like a fire that has gone out, but the embers still give off some warmth. It was scary, especially on our fifth anniversary, when I realized that it really was true that I loved Mike more for every year. I decided to look inside that Schrödinger’s box where I had placed love. In it, I found out what love really is, but that is for another story.
A friend of mine once said “you can choose to live in love, or live in fear”, and synchronicity would have it that shortly thereafter I listened to the audiobook “The Biology of Belief” by biologist Bruce Lipton, which said pretty much the same thing. Living in love means trusting, whether its your future self, loved ones, strangers or the universe. It means assuming good will or taking a loss for someone else’s gain. Living in love means being curious and exploring, having an open mind. Living in love means collaborating, it means accepting change, and trying to make the world better for everyone. People who live in love show vulnerability. They grow, and allow people around them to grow.
People who live in fear don’t explore. They don’t change their minds about truths that make up their identities and worlds. They are suspicious to strangers, afraid of new cultures. People who live in fear are afraid of change, and never show vulnerability. Living in love or living in fear is one of the most fundamental choices that a human can make, but we are never alone in making that choice. Our environment, the society and culture we live in, our friends and families, they all influence how easy it is to make that choice. You can never force someone to live in love, you can only inspire them to. You can, however, force someone to live in fear – but only for as long as they accept it.
So, friend, what are you feeling right now? I hope that whatever it is, it brings you dreams of a world where more people live in love than live in fear. Of moments and views that will never suffer Vemödalen. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.