Shh. Rosalita Bandita’s napping. I can feel the relaxed expulsions of breath on my thigh. She’s decided to curl up right beside me. She’s dreaming. Maybe of hunting. Her front paws occasionally convulse. Her ears twitch. She’s a hunting dog. Meant to point. Every day, when we walk, she trees a squirrel and looks back to me desperately to do my part. When we walk back home with zero dead squirrels between us, I imagine she’s more than a little disappointed in me. She did her part. I shame us both.
Why did I pick Rosalita from all the other dogs at the rescue, from all the other dogs I saw? I had criteria going in: I didn’t want a lap dog (too loud, no fun) and I wanted short hair (mild allergy). But I saw plenty of dogs like that. When I explain how I chose her now, I give all types of reasons. But those are all just projections backward; rational explanations for what was, without a doubt, a purely emotional decision. She looked at me and stood up in her cage and I fell in love with her. It was just a feeling, a strong, overwhelming feeling that I wanted this creature in my life, beside me, I wanted to take care of her and play with her and have her curl up beside me, and fall asleep, and breathe relaxed breaths of fine exhaustion on my thigh. I wanted it, I just wanted it.
In most areas of human relations, it is that feeling that moves us. It’s a scary and frustrating fact of the human condition that no matter the strength and operation of our reason, it is our feelings, our impulses, that drive us. There are fewer more frightening realities than this. Because our feelings are conditioned by a lifetime of experiences, going back to the cradle; and in the catalog of individual human experiences, we often lack agencies. We’re the subject of the actions of a wider society and other individuals, also acting on impulse, who lie to us, who use us, who take advantage of us. No matter how hard we try to do the right thing, and the best thing, to be good people who treat others right, that conditioning determines what we can and cannot do, what “feels right” and what hurts.
In studies, researchers have found that it is emotion much more than reason that determines the result and our reaction to it. Consider the following:
The importance of emotion for decision making is also apparent in the fact that decision making itself is often an emotional process. If we do engage in detailed weighing of the different courses of action and trading off their attributes this often appears to be a source of negative emotion (Beattie & Barlas, 2001; Luce et al., 2001). We tend to undertake elaborate decision processes only for important decisions, but precisely in these cases emotional trade-off difﬁculty will occur (not so much for trivial decisions)…When others are involved in our decisions, or in their consequences, emotions such as empathy, love, anger, shame and guilt may
be evoked and play a role during the process.
Rosalita is stirring. Though I haven’t done anything–I haven’t flinched a muscle–she’s woken up. She’s looking up at me with wide eyes. Perhaps she’s flummoxed–a moment ago, after all, she was free, chasing squirrels up trees in an endless field filled with endless dog butts to smell. Now here she is, looking up at me, and, for some reason, she pushes herself away from me with her front paws. Now, back to sleep. Shh.
Is life this determined for us? Do we lack so much agency? If, even seeking positive experiences, we’re little more than the sum of what we’ve felt, of when we’ve been hurt, of the dishonesty, cruelty, and lack of empathy of others, what is left to being human?
Is there really nothing more to what we want than I want it?
The implications of this are heavy. With art, for example. A piece of art–whether it’s a painting, a film, a song, a book or a tv show–pulls a visceral reaction from us; a reaction that is more the result of a “survival circuit,” expressing the patterning of the brain as a result of a lifetime of experiences. When someone tells us they love it, or hate it, we’ll descend into abstract discussions about what the artist was trying to say, the “intellectual” reasons we approve or disapprove of the method, and the social conditions that are blinding us/opening our eyes to the real “message.”
But this feels like me rationalizing Rosie. I wanted. That’s all. I wanted.
So it’s the same with people. And that’s the scariest bit; when we’re rejected by another person, whether socially, romantically, or professionally, we count up the pro’s and con’s; why are they acting so irrationally? Don’t they see what’s good? Don’t they understand the advantage? And faced with arbitrary behavior, the very natural reaction is frustration and anger. Because we can’t overcome arbitrary behavior. There’s nothing more frightening, and therefore angering, than irrational, arbitrary behavior. We can’t make others feel what they should, to our mind, feel. There’s a lifetime of experience across that space, behind those eyes, just out of reach.
Rosie rolled over onto her back. I leaned in to kiss her snout. She pawed me away. She usually loves snout kisses. Just now, at this moment, she didn’t, and that’s that.