Words are cheap

Teaching both literacy and psychology sometimes brings collisions of thought. In English emotions are treated as abstract nouns, states of being in and of themselves... which may possibly be an accurate assessment of emotions as internalised experiences. However, would it be more constructive to consider emotions as verbs, that is to say actions?
The English are stereotypically stilted in their expression of emotions, and maybe in part this is because of how we conceive of emotions in the first place. It's all well and good saying you love someone, but does this express itself through loving action? What do you actually do to make your love more than just a word in your head? If an emotion never leaves the realm of the abstract, is it really worth much of anything? Clearly a mental state may develop over a long period of time before culminating in action ~ probably few rapists go out and commit their crimes after a mere 5 minutes of considering them. Most have likely indulged in violent fantasies for a long time before deciding to let loose their sadism, rage etc.
Yet others go to their graves without ever articulating the creative, destructive, or plain humdrum states that exist in their heads. How many friendships, romances or familial associations flounder because one or both parties never do anything to express the emotional states they claim to feel?

Continuing in this vein, do we grasp a sense of our own or other peoples character based on their abstract thoughts or upon their deeds? Having generous thoughts is nice, but if one never engages in a single generous act in what sense can you be said to be a magnanimous person?
Clearly there has to be an element of combining both intention and action, given that three people can all engage in the same behaviour for quite distinct reasons. Where does the split lay? I'd say in favour of action as determining the bulk of a person's character. To a very large extent we are what we do, or perhaps it would be more pertinent to say we become what we repeatedly do.
Cognitive psychologists sometimes refer to the Ben Franklin Effect to illustrate the idea of retroactive emotionalism. The anecdote goes that Mr Franklin inveigled a hostile politician into lending him an expensive book, whereupon said politician suddenly became friendly towards him ~ feeling that only an irrational fool would make so kind an act towards someone they disliked and, not wanting to consciously face the likelihood that he was either irrational or a fool, convinced himself that he must really have liked Franklin all along.
We frequently act on transitory impulse or out of a sense of social convention, and later create emotional justifications that make our behaviours seem deeper or more cogent than they probably were at the time.
Further, it's worth bearing in mind that we are not just shaped by our own actions, but also by other peoples actions towards us. It's not an exact science - there are people who are loved and cared for by others, but still loathe themselves so deeply that they bring about their own destruction. Equally there are those living in a world of hostility who manage to radiate kindness and decency. However, such people are perhaps the exceptions rather than the rule.
Christopher Isherwood said, "While you're being persecuted, you hate what's happening to you, you hate the people who are making it happen; you're in a world of hate". The actions of others have a massive impact upon us (just as ours have upon them), particularly when the majority of the collective actions are all in the same direction. If you doubt this, consider what it would be like to have almost everyone you know dancing attendance upon your every word and treating you with the utmost reverence, or for everyone to treat you as a twisted freak to be avoided and distrusted at every turn, or for them to universally pity you, or lust after you. It is difficult not to share an opinion when so many other people have it and overtly demonstrate it.
Which suggests, if nothing else, that we need to make sure that the actions we take towards others have the effect we want them to (after careful consideration of what we want). Hate someone and they may become hateful, love them and they might become loveable ~ only may, of course, because there are other factors to consider and your behaviour towards them may be countered by the actions of others. Likewise, consider how others treat you and whether you want to become the sort of person that they are treating you as.


  1. I think alot of writing is born from the need to express emotions and desires that cannot be fulfilled in the material world. I spent two years writing a fantasy novel about a fire magician and his allies who brought an end to capitalism through a combination of liberating the people's minds through the arts and wanton acts of burning destruction. It was very much an expression of my rage and frustration. Unfortunately it was terrible...

  2. I think rage is one of the most difficult things to express artistically. So often it just ends up as an inarticulate rant! Maybe you should revise the novel when you are feeling calmer, and it might get published.

  3. Do you think that we have more control over our emotions than our language sometimes suggest? For example, we talk about people falling in love, as if they have no choice about how they feel. But it seems to me that, actually, we do have a choice; there is a point where we can say, "No, I'm not going to fall for this person."

  4. I think that's partly were nouns become verbs ~ I might feel intense love for a person but decide not to tell him or do anything about it for whatever reason. In the same way that I could hate someone but make a conscious decision not to act in a hateful or aggressive manner... and perhaps by not acting on it (and avoiding that person if at all possible), the unexpressed emotions begins to dwindle away.
    in the reverse direction I think we can fan emotions, so that what starts out as a mild attraction or liking could, by opting to spend a lot of time with aid person, focussing thoughts on them etc. could be built up into becoming love.


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