For the only time I can remember, this morning I pondered about how my emotions may have changed during the course of my sixty-six years. A piece of semi-autobiographical fiction (is that even a realistic category?) I began writing last night triggered this contemplation, I think, but it could have been something else or a combination of other thoughts. Not that it matters.
What matters is that, this morning, I consciously considered the possibility that my emotions today differ significantly from my emotions as a teenager or a young man in my twenties and thirties or, for that matter, as an adult well into his fifties and early sixties. My emotions today feel different. They feel like they belong to someone else, someone more resilient and stronger in some ways, but more fragile and more easily broken in others. I think the type of emotions to which I refer will be obvious from my words so far but, in case there’s any question, I refer to negative emotions; fear, anger, anguish, grief, heartache, sadness, and so on.
Having experienced grief on several occasions, both as a child and as an adult, I think the emotion has been distinctively different at various points in my life. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure my words can adequately describe the differences, but I’ll try. In my early youth, grief at the death of a pet dog or cat was intense but relatively short-lived. I think the loss of pets caused as much a selfish sense of loss as real grief. Perhaps it wasn’t true grief; perhaps it was just intense melancholy.
Later, the death of relatives to whom I was not close caused feelings that may not have been grief at the loss for myself, but sorrow at the loss for family members who were far closer than I to the deceased. Later, my grief at the death of my parents about a year apart, when I was in my early thirties, was intense and raw and long-lasting. Their deaths, especially my mother’s death, left me feeling that a piece of myself was gone and I would never be able to retrieve it; it was as if that piece of me existed only in the the relationship we had. The emotions that spilled from me during those times seemed to question whether what I was experiencing was real, too.
My sister’s death several years ago caused pain and grief and a sense of acute loss. And I felt the same vague disbelief that she was really gone. But I remember finally feeling the reality that death was a natural part of one’s life; that loss and the pain that goes with it were inevitable. Yet I remember, too, thinking that nothing can prepare one for the death of a loved one. I remember thinking the unthinkable; how, if my wife were to die, I would simply be unable to go on.
More recently, friends and acquaintances have died. Their deaths hurt, but the understanding of death’s inevitability seems to have grown in me. Deaths seem more shocks to the system than emotional cataclysms. But that may be because more recent deaths have not been close family members.
I’ve written so far only about grief. The same kinds of transitions that have taken place in my experience of grief have occurred in my experience of other emotions. It’s not that my emotions have dulled. It’s more that they have adapted to the reality that I have no other option than to experience them; like death and the grief that accompanies it, they are inevitable. But that inevitability seems to have built a shell around me in a way, protecting me from the devastation that some emotions can leave behind. In that sense, I think I am more resilient, more able to deal with negative experiences. Yet I feel strongly, if that shell were to crack, the protection it provides will vaporize in an instant. That’s where my sense of greater fragility comes in. It’s as if I know I can take just so much but, if the shell breaks, as it were, I might not be able to survive the anguish it unleashes.
So far, most of my thoughts have surrounded negative experiences and the traumatic emotions that accompany them. But I think the same maturation (if that’s what it is) has taken place with more positive experiences. Joy, once a sense of unbridled elation, seems to have been tempered by the years. And gratitude, awe, happiness, optimism, hope—virtually all positive emotions—seem to be less intense, less overpowering, less exciting. I guess that’s true for the same reasons that the negative emotions have changed; my experience has taught me they don’t last, they aren’t necessarily the life-changing experiences they may have felt like in times gone by.
As I contemplate these observations about my emotions, I feel more than a little regret that, from the vantage point of this bright morning, they all seem to have dulled. Their sharp-edges no longer hurt as much nor feel as good as they once did. The vibrancy of youth seems to have drained from them, leaving emotions whose vitality is restricted by the wisdom of experience. I wish my observations were temporary and wrong. I miss feeling the energy of powerful emotions (though I know I still experience powerful emotions, just not in the way I once did). Perhaps this woeful treatise on the maturation of emotions is simply the product of an unusual mood. I hope so.