Not in Mourning

22 09 2010

Most human emotions, I’ve learned, are states of immediate being. You feel happy; or wistful; or angry. The fact that all of these states are necessarily transient is inherent knowledge that our language generally don’t seem to acknowledge. If someone asks us how we’re doing, we answer as though it’s part of who we are: We say “I’m great!” Not “I’m presently feeling great!” though that’s more precise. And while we’re not looking for the end of the mood, we know in the backs of our minds that it won’t last. Another will come, and soon enough be replaced by the next. But we don’t think about this explicitly, and we haven’t built it into our language to imply it.

That’s why it’s so interesting that we’ve given name to a human state of being which actually does imply process and ephemerality. When we say that someone is in mourning, it means three very specific things to us: that an event has transpired to trigger great sadness in the person, that the person will be hurting acutely for a period of time, and that after that period of time, that person will be back, more or less, to normal. It’s astounding to think that people, shaping language, had such a sense of discomfort about certain events (death, profound loss, misplacing keys) that they would admit perspective into the concept.

Because that’s all it really is. Mourning is a great sadness… but with a clock hung gratefully around its neck, rolling back the hours until you’re out of that nasty mess. It’s understood by the way it’s used that the process will deliver the person from painful shock to solid ground again. One could look at this and feel impressed that we, as a species, have gained wisdom enough to know that we’re not going to hurt forever, that the pain will subside and we’ll one day rejoin the ranks of the generally pleased and productive.

Or one could take it as a sign that we are a clingy species, that we are generally unwilling to admit that beyond the current moment, the current moment is most likely without great impact. Feeling happy is lovely, but what’s the point of saying it like it’s the feeling at which you’ve ultimately arrived?

We didn’t bask in the joy of our first kiss for months! It faded because we had more kisses for momentary basking, or perhaps because we couldn’t get another kiss and the joy transformed into painful longing and embarrassing bathroom graffiti about what terrible kissers we were. Not me, of course—I was a highly desirable makeout mate from a surprisingly early age. Ask anyone. The exhilaration and sense of possibility we felt when taking the car out of the driveway by ourselves for the first time is nothing but a collectively cozy spot in our collectively sentimental heart. It’s gone! You’re not going to feel that again! However great or miserable our states of being have been, they were reduced or elevated relatively quickly, and eventually, over time, has landed us here. How do you feel? You won’t for long.

This is no theory of despair, you know. Existing atop constantly shifting emotional sands is the condition of humanity. It’s a theory of observing fact. Gaining perspective is the only way to navigate out of pain. It is also the best way to learn to appreciate feeling joy. Maybe our language should reflect that to help grow our wisdom through continuous repetition. Perhaps the next time you make a declaration of emotional status, you should precede it with “momentarily,” just to see how it feels.

It’s not a qualification! It’s not pessimism. It’s objective fact, you idiot. Oh, did you just get angry? I was just kidding—you’re an amazing person for making it to the end of this weird post! Wow! Do me a favor and enjoy the sincere compliment you’ve just been given. But don’t cling to it.