Sometimes, it’s just hard to be a human being plugging around this big ol’ planet, day in and day out. In the immediate wake of the horror in Charleston, I felt and am feeling everything, things that I can’t begin to adequately articulate here. When I woke to the news on Thursday morning, that America had once again failed to change anything to keep us from killing each other, that nine black human beings were slaughtered in a church that has stood as a symbol of black pride and resistance for centuries as they engaged in bible study, as they practiced community, as they came together in peace and celebrated the simple act of togetherness….I cried. Of course I did. Throughout all of Thursday, I kept being overwhelmed by tears and emotion in very public places: the office, on my bicycle riding home, at the kitchen table that night. I just felt really fucking sad over Charleston, and what these historic structures of violence, racism, and patriarchy keep doing to good people, and how we keep having these same conversations and yet nothing changes, and we wait, holding our breath, hoping nothing happens until it does, and we get sad again, and it all happens the same every single time. And through my sadness and anger comes guilt over my own privilege and then I start to wonder where it’s appropriate for me to speak in this conversation and where I should just listen, and then the confusion sets in and I’m overwhelmed and….no wonder so many people choose apathy.
As I sat on Thursday and throughout this weekend with the weight of Charleston, I thought about it a lot, as I have a tendency to do. I sat there with all of the feelings flooding in, wondering how everybody was just walking around like it was a normal day, like nothing had happened, yet there I was, consumed by this feeling of dread, horror, tragedy, everything you don’t want to feel when trying to go grocery shopping or serve clients at a food pantry. And I realized it’s time to face it, to name it:
I am emotionally soft. And that’s OK. And I’m owning it.
Throughout my life, I’ve commonly been described as “emotional.” My parents described me to relatives that way when the self-imposed stress of my academic and extracurricular life from age 10-18 caused me to throw around tornadoes of emotion and push that stress onto others. Friends in college and now, in post-grad life, comment on how they “admire” (are you just being nice?) how I’m “so in touch with [my] emotions” or how, “You always know what you’re feeling.” I’ve always been able to cry, a lot and at everything, both happy and sad. People who can’t cry freak me out, just as much as I’m sure my ever-just-below-the-surface tears freak them out. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve cried in public to a stranger or acquaintance and tried to diffuse those emotions by saying something passive like, “I don’t know why I’m crying.” [Because you’re sad/angry/happy Anna, just own it, damn it.] The fact that someone could “not know what [they’re] feeling right now” is weird to me; I always know what I’m feeling, and in fact it’s probably seven different emotions at once, and I can name each and every one of them. Emotion defines me. I am moved, driven, and shaped by it. I’m a heart thinker masquerading as a head thinker.
Not only am I emotional, though. I am soft. At the same time I’m feeling my emotions, I’m feeling everyone else’s, too. I feel what the woman crying on the street corner is feeling. I feel the exhaustion of one of my housemates. I’ve never been able to keep the world from rushing in on me; I’ve never been able to turn off that tap and stop that flood. When I was home in December, I reread some of my old journals that I’ve been keeping since I was 8, and I found an entry from when I was 15 or 16 about exactly this: Something horrible had happened (as always does in our country), and I was just feeling every inch of it. I wrote about how I was so tired from feeling so much of what I and other people were feeling, how I couldn’t stop everything in the word from coming in. How I wish I had a better filter. The first time I remember being really acutely aware of how I process and hold public tragedy was after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. I couldn’t stop reading about it, and it was the first time when I personally processed a public tragedy: I read about the victims, stared at their photos, sat in horror I couldn’t yet articulate as I thought about these lives suddenly, totally extinguished.
But here is my manifesto: I am proud to be emotionally soft. Because we live in a country and a society where that is not encouraged or admired, and it should be. We live in a nation afraid of emotion, and this isolates us from one another. As Americans, we’re disgustingly optimistic. We’re too quick to put a passive, positive spin on heartache, sorrow, and tragedy, and this means that there’s not a space for emotion, for lament, or even for grief. When tragedy happens, everyone’s first instinct is to “pray for ____.” “Pray” for Charleston, “Pray for Baltimore,” “Pray for Boston,” etc. Instead of letting a tragedy hurt us, horrify us, and sit with us, we try to pass it off to “the Big Guy,” because it’s easier to pray and pretend that’s enough than it is to really feel. And that’s fucked up.
It’s a sign of our numb, faulty emotional range as a society that we are so quick to distract ourselves from tragedy. We are so quick to move on, and I think it’s because we are taught as children that it’s not okay to feel too much. It’s not okay to be publicly emotional. It’s not okay to process out loud and to feel the ache that others are feeling. It’s not okay to be soft.
Well dammit, I am soft. I am one emotional broad, and I’m finally becoming okay with it. I’m finally done hiding it or thinking that I am flawed for it. Because we need more softness in our society; we need more sensitivity, listening, and understanding. Because as contradictory as it sounds, being soft is hard, and we are too afraid to do what is hard. It’s hard to face the tragedies that we have created for ourselves and have long, serious discussions that lead to action in order to change them. It’s hard to feel too much, because that means you might end up feeling your way into anger, and angering your way into change. I’m emotionally soft. And the world needs it.