Emotional Hygiene

Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.

Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.

First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.

Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.

Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.

In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.

How is your emotional hygiene?

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To

or Why FEAR is Like Hot Sauce – Part III’

Recently my colleagues bought me cake and a signed card with lovely wishes for my birthday. A [false] social media alert had triggered their interest and they had pooled together to congratulate me.

I stammered something about it not being my birthday but they clarified they had then done research and found my date of birth on our staff database and that it was only a few weeks prior.

I managed to thank them and mutter something about being a birthday ‘grinch‘. However, when left alone, I was overcome with a wave of emotion, humiliation, condemnation, and hot tears.

Why did such a lovely guesture catalyse such a flood of emotion?

As I paused to examine my feelings, I unearthed a deep sense of failure, unloveliness, lack of dignity and embarrassment layered there. These sadnesses about my life are emphasisesd at each anniversary of my birth as though mile markers taunt me to show my lack of progress or as a measuring rod, to highlight my lack of stature.

When my colleagues tried to cheer me for my birthday, I felt like a door to a private room of grief was suddenly thrown open, a door I was hoping to keep closed. Memories of relationship failures, griefs about unmet expectations and unrealised dreams came tumbling out; fears of social indignity and disrespect met the light of what I fear most of all, the knowledge of these failures in the faces of my colleagues. I felt crushed.

I looked down and focused on my work and I cried silently in the office that afternoon.

Joseph Campbell writes,

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

I don’t talk about my birthday because it reminds me of the failures of my life. I have not achieved XYZ and am still struggling with questions of identity, purpose and direction. I’m not where I feel like I should be and I am I feel shame.

My response to being warmly congratulated by friends, alerted me that there was a cave I needed to enter, a cave of vulnerability and to sharing my life experiences with my colleagues, my life story, with others that could yield a treasure of friendship and connection that I have not yet experienced with them.

Instead of pretending to be ‘A-Okay’, and a little distant, my story with all its honesty and griefs, could indeed be a treasure to encourage other people who feel they are failures, unlovely, undignified or ashamed.

On Distancing Techniques

Or Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce – Part II’

I have come to be aware of something I do to avoid [what I perceive to be] rejection. I use ‘distancing techniques‘: words or actions to put a wall down or to establish distance between myself and others to make me feel less vulnerable.

These range from socially acceptable to rude and immature and include: talking about independence or career interests or romantic relationships in an academic tone; establishing that one is busy or subtly stating a dislike of a shared activity or a desire to leave; leaving early; pretending to not feel upset about a result or an outcome; retreating to become a silent observer in a group or conversely becoming functional and doing chores or overly polite; pretending to have forgotten key information; avoiding certain people or conversation in company; using one’s phone in company; not saying goodbye properly.

This list continues.

All of these are reflexive and defensive behaviours, to put distance between self and the object of either affection (and therefore vulnerability) or threat.

The Mirror Principle

What has alerted me to these behaviours is what is known as the ‘mirror principle.’ When I encounter ‘distancing techniques‘ in others it can cause me intense pain. However, the minute I begin to resent others for behaving defensively, it dawns on me that this is in fact how I have been behaving.

There is no greater teacher than first hand experience.

The Remedy For Heartache

These behaviours only serve to bury feelings deep within and unfortunately, seal a firm lid on them.

I’m learning that the only true remedy for pain is to stay close to it, to suffer pain and discomfort, to open the heart to sensation, love, loss, sorrow and heartache.

For me, to own my own vulnerability and softness is key. I must do away with any shame or sense of weakness attached to emotions, and allow myself to feel, even if it causes me suffering.

Why Teaching Poetry is so Important

The article below by Andrew Simmons was published in The Atlantic on April 8, 2014. It’s linked here below verbatim.

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The oft-neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

 

16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society‘s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There’s also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling.

Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.

I have always rejected these clichéd mischaracterizations born of ignorance, bad movies, and uninspired teaching. Yet I haven’t been stirred to fill my lessons with Pound and Eliot as my 11th grade teacher did. I loved poetry in high school. I wrote it. I read it. Today, I slip scripture into an analysis of The Day of the Locust. A Nikki Giovanni piece appears in The Bluest Eye unit. Poetry has become an afterthought, a supplement, not something to study on its own.

poetry

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text.

Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions.

Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit.

All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.

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Yet, despite all of the benefits poetry brings to the classroom, I have been hesitant to use poems as a mere tool for teaching grammar conventions. Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that,

…literature should be mystifying.

It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly. I am confident my 12th graders know how to write essays. I know they can mine a text for subtle messages. But I worry sometimes if they’ve learned this lesson. In May, a month before they graduate, I may read some poetry with my seniors—to drive home that and nothing more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

  • Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician based in California. He has written for The New York TimesSlate, and The Believer.

 

Sonnet XLIII

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Does art mirror life or does life mirror art? Critics will tell you the best art conveys feeling and that even photographic art emotes. Art is more like  a dream -vision of reality, whether nightmarish, beautiful or haunting. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 captures the relationship of art to life.

Art is the waking dream, and when we dream, we see as though to the heart of the artists emotions.

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