Thursday, December 16, 2004

Emotions, Romanticism, and Compassion

 
What are emotions? Why do I experience emotions? How do emotions serve me? How do emotions make me a better human? How do emotions serve humanity? How do emotions make the world a better place?

These are some of the questions I have been confronting as I submerge myself into my art work. I started painting in ernest in January, 2004. Since then, I have been on an emotional roller coaster. I find that painting (and more recently, drawing) put me smack dab in the middle of my emotions. My poor wife and family have had to tolerate my emotional swings as I come home each day from art class.

More than just a sense of "triumph" and "failure", I find that creating art heightens my emotions. I would not say I am more conscious of my emotions, because I have never been very good at recognizing or understanding my emotional state. Rather, I am left "raw" and "sensitized"; all my senses are heightened and seem to feed directly into an emotional reaction. There are days when, as I drive home from class, I start to cry as I experience how beautiful the world looks to me!

What are emotions? After many months of introspection, I began to understand that emotions are the shared language of my senses. By that I mean that each of my senses gathers information about my environs: I see a tree, I hear rustling leaves, I smell the earth. My senses feed into my emotions, where each sense is compared to the other senses using the common language of my emotions: the tree, with its branches swaying gently in the wind, is predictable and yet pleasantly unpredictable, the rustling leaves are soothing, and the smell of rich, rotted leaf dirt is comforting. All my senses point me to an emotional response which includes safety, security, celebration, growth, and life.

Why do I experience emotions? How do emotions serve me? Perhaps, emotions are there to make sense of my diverse (and largely orthogonal) senses. Emotions let me compare the beautiful petals of a rose to the smell of a rose to the pain of the rose thorns. Perhaps emotions are the mechanism through which I use my senses to respond to my environment. Maybe emotions are the reaction to my senses which guide me as to what I should do next. My senses give me the warnings I need to react quickly and correctly to the world around me. Sudden bright light or complete darkness, loud noises or the sound of something behind me, bad flavors, a fire's heat on my skin, the smell of death all invoke anxiety and fear and help me to take precautionary actions.

How do emotions make me a better human? As I struggled to find the connection between my art and my heightened emotions, I became dissatisfied with the idea that emotions make me a better human being. I have always thought that logic and reason were the guiding lights to becoming a better human being. The discipline of careful, intellectual thought was the answer. Emotions were a degradation, a lower, more basic form of my humanity. I struggled to understand how my art work, so intertwined with my emotions, was or was not making me a better human being. I began to worry that my art was just a self-serving excuse to experience the drama of emotions.

I would come home from art classes giddy with heightened senses and rich in sensuality. I began to search out sense experiences; beautiful drives through the autumn tinged grape orchards, long sits in cafes watching people and imagining their stories, conversations with people closer to death. I live in and enjoy the moment, often overwhelmed by the creativity and life in the world. I seemed to be falling into a world dominated by my emotional reaction to my environment - not the place I wanted to be; not the place where I could make the world a better place and serve humanity. I began to question how my art could serve humanity. I wondered do emotions served humanity?

Yesterday morning I had an insight. As I began thinking about how emotions serve humanity, I realized that the expression of emotions was the precurser to a spoken language. Showing emotions like pain, anger, or caring were how humans communicated with one another before there was a spoken language. The expression of the reactions we experienced to our senses became our standardized language. Our expressed emotions became the way one human communicated with another human. The expression of our emotions to another human being was our way of letting others know our reaction to what we were experiencing. Expressed emotions allowed humans to communicate with one another. Expressed emotions became the socializing glue of humanity which allowed humans to work and live together more successfully than they could alone. Even today, we experience this level of communication with newborn children. Until infants learn more, they express their emotions (crying=pain, silence<>pain) to communicate to us their reaction to their sense experiences.

Now I was getting somewhere! Emotions are the common language of our senses. Expressed emotions, as a shared language, allow social behavior. Social behavior allows humans to interact and cooperate, develop language, spoken and written, and set in motion the (so far) successfull survival strategy for the human species.

In fact, I got an insight into what is going on today and what I can do better. Notice that there are two levels on which emotions occur: internally as a reaction to my senses and externally as an expression of my emotions. The "me" generations, which really got their big start with the rise of "humanism" in the Italian Renaissance of the 1400's, have been confusing more and more the function of internal emotions and external emotions. Romanticism and the rise of the individual has focused human experience into the relm of the internal (individual) emotional reaction. Expressing emotions has not matured to match the advances made in language. Instead of refining the expression of my emotions, I enjoy the undisciplined revelation of my internal emotions as a way to draw attention to myself and make my life more "meaningful". The expression of my emotions has become a sort of "self-definition", to the detriment of using the expression of my emotions to communicate with others to ensure our collective survival. I have become obsessed with expressing "MY feelings" rather than concerned with what others are telling me with the expression of their emotions. I have subverted the use of emotional expression as a social tool to a personal tool.

But all is not lost! In fact, I am right on target. I started thinking about all the emotions that help me as a member of society; among them, emotions like love (but not self-gratifying romantic/addictive love), compassion, caring, empathy, concern (for others). These emotions require more discipline and training to become habitual. These emotions are more proactive rather than reactive. They are more forward looking than backward looking. And they take more work, more effort, more focus, and more energy. These emotions are often in short supply when I am lower on my Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Well, where does all this leave me? I am still struggling with the purpose of my art. But now I have a clearer picture of the direction in which I want to go. I have a better understanding of the function of emotion in our social structure. I think there are good reasons to keep the expression of emotions around for a while. And when I think of what this means for my art, I want to create art that inspires people to be more compassionate. I want my art to invoke an emotional reaction that helps people express their own compassion. How do I do that? I don't konw. I know that a part of it is the expression of my love for life in my art. If successful, I will inspire others to care enough about life to work to preserve it, not just for the short haul, but for generations long after we are all dead. If I can do that, then I will have made this world a better place. 

December 16, 2004

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