These days, our gut gets a pretty bad rap. Our culture equates personal validity with good communication, making anything inexplicable look highly suspicious. That “vibe” we get sometimes is born in a moment that flees before our minds can capture it, so we employ our best tools to retrieve it: are you being too sensitive? Are you being overemotional? Why? Where does that come from? And ultimately, how might you be wrong?
There must be a “legitimate” source of our split-second sensations, right? And if we can’t consider all of the options with a great, intellectual discussion, clearly it doesn’t mean anything. And so we wave a feeling away, on to the next topic of the day.
Perhaps I’ve become overly deft at this emotional sleight of hand; a couple of recent, fleeting experiences in the past month have shown me how much so. I’ll describe it to you, but it will have to sound vague: I was standing before someone, outside, on a beautifully sunny day…and felt unusually trapped. I remember being reassured there were bystanders around…just in case. There wasn’t much breeze and some students were dancing together around the corner. But during the encounter, I felt an acutely strong discomfort. It was pretty unfamiliar, and I was definitely entertaining all of the potential, visible causes behind it, before deciding I was imagining everything. And as soon as I started walking away, I forgot about it entirely. Problem solved! Unexplained ambiguity effectively avoided.
But when I stepped into the situation again a few weeks later, the threatening feeling I had received before came back. And there are other ways that this personal connection is growing unexpectedly intrusive. Finally, in this seemingly absurd contest between raw instinct and rationale, I realized that my head hadn’t been leading me correctly. Now, I get it: I get that I’m not going to get it. And now I can respond appropriately.
Much of the problem is my habit of clinging to that aforementioned big head that analyzes visible data and makes convenient conclusions. This is the head that got me into this school, that forms the words I speak and write, that makes me resistant to others’ advice and spiteful of others’ criticism and believes in a religion of coherency. And for all of that, it’s way more problematic and self-deceptive than I usually admit. I’ve noticed that the bad logic I employ on myself tends to supports wisdom that unravels in retrospect. This must be why that recent episode hit me so hard: it was jarring to see my head so obviously opposing something I so palpably felt. It’s rare to see that happening in real time.
On a daily basis, we may think we live in a sensible world of facts we can figure. But, really, none of that means anything without the emotions with which we color it. Often, these things are inexpressible, and we’re fooled into thinking they’re less real. But the reason why poetry, music and landscapes are beautiful to us is because they court the ethereal. They address the existence of something bigger that we know, instinctively, exists. Remember the sunset, which happens every single night and constantly debuts in sappy movies and ballad music. And yet, it’s one of the most indescribably personal things any of us might ever experience, making it one of the most universal things in the world.
These things, like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness are the fuel of cynics and skeptics exactly because they are most powerful. I’ve found that rejecting these intensely internal sources of information can be dangerous, when our head is perhaps the least trustworthy source. Truth springs elsewhere, and we should run after it.
Feel strongly about this column? Email Nina! She has ears to hear (and eyes to read) at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.