In an earlier post about my strangely numb reaction to cancer, I jokingly suggested I might be sociopathic.
It’s been pointed out to more than once: I often seem to have a very low level of emotion. I just appear to breeze along, making crap jokes and singing little songs to myself. But when the shit hits the fan… I make crap jokes and sing little songs. I even do it when coping with tough times, illness, personal crises, arguments and fallings-out.
So. Am I a sociopath? Am I really utterly unfeeling? Is it weird that I’m not even having an emotional reaction to the accusation, I’m just pondering it and writing a blog? Probably!
Maybe I’m broken inside.
But I don’t think so.
It’s tricky to discuss because of the age-old “platform problem”. There’s a great discussion on this subject in the life-changing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s about how some people respond to surface (Robert Persig, the author, calls these people “Romantics”) and others think more about what’s going on underneath (he calls these “Classics”).
To a Classic person, a Romantic is flimsy, lightweight, shallow, obsessed with packaging and surface and gossip, and unable to do proper assessments of the important stuff in life.
To a Romantic, a Classic is cold, callous, obsessed with nerdy things, unfeeling, uncommunicative, and doesn’t have any appreciation of art or beauty or loveliness.
Both sets of people are equally wrong and equally right. But in order to talk about it you have to stand on one of the two platforms: Classic or Romantic. And just by standing on a platform you immediately offend the other set of people.
The problem is exacerbated because on the one hand we have Classic people, who are unlikely to get offended (or even see the point of being offended) by the words used to describe them. They’ll hear them and analyse them, but won’t feel any offence.
But on the other side are Romantics, who are more likely to take offence, even if the words used are no more offensive than the ones they use to describe Classics. It’s entirely normal to be a Romantic, and to have a strong experience of the surface meaning of the word. A Classic hears “calculating and emotionless” and writes a blog discussing it, with references to source materials. A Romantic hears “hysterical and over-emotional” and gets hysterical and over-emotional.
See? Even when I try to avoid the platform problem, I still use terms which are bound to offend some people. Totally unintentional. But try talking about this stuff without using those terms!
Thinking about this made me look back on moments when I really should feel something. If I felt something, then I’m not a sociopath; I’m one of Robert Persig’s “Classics”.
My dad died. I should feel that, right? The hospital had phoned to tell us we should hurry to his side. I knew that probably meant he was already dead. That’s how they do it; they don’t tell you over the phone, they get you to come to the ward urgently.
I picked up my mum and took her with me. When I got there my brother had already arrived, and was crying. I didn’t cry. A day or so later, when I was sorting out clothes for him to be buried in, I bawled my eyes out.
Does this make me a sociopath? Or does it just mean I (entirely subconsciously) recognised that everyone in the room needed someone to do the tough stuff, and so I boxed my emotions up until the pressure was off? I think the latter.
I can think of other instances:
My disappointment at losing a job, which I had to control because I needed to act fast to secure another.
My anger at being mugged, which I had to control so I could focus on defending myself against 3 attackers.
My genuine fear in the middle of the night about a week before my cancer operation, when I had lain awake for hours listening to Alzheimer’s patients singing at 4am, and considering how debilitating chemo might be. Not death: that seems easy. But a tough life, that’s really hard to face.
Did I feel these things? Damn right. But it’s part of who I am to be in control of emotions, not – and this is the platform problem again – not a victim of my emotions. Not overwhelmed by them.
It’s not a trick or a strength. It’s not a boast, any more than you can boast about being tall or having big feet. You don’t wake up every morning and practice being 6’5″, it’s just who you are. And my controlled emotions are who I am.
And if that hurts people around me, then I feel genuine sorrow, but you’d never know it to look at me.