Monday, December 17, 2012

Rationality, Emotion, and Tragedy

I have striven for the past couple of years to understand what has so drawn me to the study of Behavioral Economics. It's not a natural attraction, if you look at my academic history. I spent my undergraduate years studying creative writing, English, and French literature, and I managed to go four years without ever writing a paper that wasn't based on an interpretation of literature.

And yet, the study of why we make stupid money decisions is fascinating to me, to the point where I have actually considered returning to school to get a degree in Economics. (My 21-year-old self would be horrified, but there you have it).

After much reflection, I've managed to put my finger on what it is that interests me in Behavioral Economics: rational decision making. I am passionately interested in rationality and I strive to make the most rational decisions possible in my own life.

Again, this doesn't make much sense if you subscribe to our culture's understanding of another facet of my personality: emotion. In addition to striving for rationality, I also happen to be an extremely emotional person. I weep at Pixar films, can be elated (and singing) for hours by good news in an email, and I can have my heart broken by tragedies in other parts of the world. I allow myself to feel and express all of these emotions when I feel them.

According to our culture, that makes me weak and irrational. In fact, emotion is often conflated with irrationality, and both have been used as a reason for sexism. For those reasons, I tried to hide my emotional tendencies for years.

But emotion and irrationality are far from the same thing, which it has taken me three decades to understand. I have long hated my emotional side, because I felt like it detracted from my intelligence in some undefined way.

But I actually think my emotional side is why I tend to be a rational person. I give my emotions the respect and space and time that they deserve. I *feel* what I feel, whereas many people will put away their emotions in the hopes of being both rational and strong. But scientific research has proven that we are not always aware of our irrational and emotional impulses (and they are not the same thing), but that does not change the fact that they have sway over our decisions. What's incredible is that human beings manage to come up with rational-sounding reasons for these irrational decisions--over and over again.

There is a cultural shift that needs to occur. We need to feel okay with emotion and let ourselves feel emotions other than happiness and anger--the only two socially appropriate emotions to express. We need to do this partially because I truly believe that it will help us to clear away our irrationality. When we allow ourselves to truly feel what we're feeling, we no longer need to provide a balm or band-aid to those emotions through irrational decisions.

Mostly, we need to be okay with emotion and recognize that it is neither weakness nor irrationality because that will be the first step we can take in handling the issues of mental illness that continually crop up with these terrible tragedies. I lost a beloved cousin and aunt to the stigma of emotion. Chris must have been in a terrible pressure cooker, having to pretend that everything was all right and that he needed no help. Nancy Lanza must have felt overwhelmed and desperate, and yet she probably put on a happy face for her friends and family. Her son was clearly overwhelmed by something we cannot even understand, and yet he asked for no help.

We in America--and other parts of the Western world--seem to think that strength is all about a stiff upper lip and handling things alone. But why on earth would that be admirable? We are human beings, and we feel things intensely, and we need each other. There needs to be no shame in any of that. Perhaps if my cousin hadn't felt ashamed of his feelings, of his depression, of his mental illness, he and Aunt Valerie might still be here today.

After a weekend of crying on and off and hugging LO oh-so-tightly, I find myself hoping that we can all together feel this terrible tragedy. We need to feel it, because sharing in the pain makes us human and helps us to be close, in some small way, to the families of Newtown, Connecticut. Feeling this horror, this raw grief, and even this terrible anger will allow us to be more rational as we start the conversation about what changes we need to make in our society to make sure that troubled individuals get help and cannot get their hands on weapons of mass killing.

Feel the grief. Be emotional. When we have given ourselves to our emotions, maybe then we can begin the difficult and rational discussions of where to go from here.

Ignoring our emotions means that we will be stuck in irrational loops of blame and poor decisions.

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