Dot writes: on Saturday night, at a party at our neighbours’ house, I found myself having a thought-provoking conversation with a total stranger about her miscarriages. She was a fairly elderly lady and volunteered the topic quite freely. We were talking about ‘trying for a girl’ and the high chance of having more of the same. I mentioned that the two little boys romping about the house were mine, and she pointed to two middle-aged men as hers and said she had three boys but would have had seven children if she hadn’t had lost four in pregnancy. One, apparently, was quite far along and would have been a little girl. In those days, she said, one didn’t particularly talk about miscarriage; one just got on with it. I asked if that made it harder or easier. Easier, she said.
I found this response simultaneously surprising and comprehensible. On the one hand, it is very much the standard view at present that one should be able to talk about distressing events. Pain expressed is pain relieved; concealment is associated with shame. One should not be alone with grief. On the other hand, talking about events like miscarriage brings them under the purview of social expectation. I’ve recently read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart, which makes the point that in many circumstances we feel there are certain emotions we ought to have and to express but we often find ourselves failing to measure up. Thus we often try to generate the right emotions to fit the circumstances, especially when others are watching. Perhaps if you don’t talk about pain or grief you also don’t have to do it right: you don’t have to deal with external expectations about how you should be and behave. We have a much more elaborated discourse about experiences like miscarriage now – this particular event is much more visible and discussed than it was a generation ago – and while that should promote compassion and consideration towards others who suffer such misfortune, which is a good thing, it must also produce a certain pressure on the sufferers.
Another dimension that occurs to me has to do more with the cognitive view of emotion that I’ve been reading about in Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Nussbaum argues that emotions are essentially judgements of value. This position starts to make a lot of sense as she elaborates it. Judgements are not necessarily reducible to linguistically formulable propositions (NUssbaum’s position rests on a broad view of cognition not confined to the cool and explicit: non-linguistic animals and tiny children are more than capable of it); the enormous urgency of some emotions is explicable in that they are ‘eudaimonistic’, which is to say that they are centered on what we feel is necessary to our own flourishing. Emotions enable us to perceive the salience of events to our selves and to relate to the world. They sometimes seem illogical or to come on us against our conscious judgements, but this is explicable in terms of the early formation of our emotional lives in childhood: the judgements embedded in our emotions are not always the ones the adult voice in our head would express. Emotions thus have an unconscious or subterranean dimension that can seem out of our control. Nonetheless, Nussbaum’s view can intersect with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s in that it is clear the ‘felt’ judgements of the heart can interact with the views of objects and events consciously adopted. One can thus see how it is possible to learn to alter one’s emotional value-judgements top-down, by thinking the thoughts that would translate into a particular feeling. I think this is also relevant to the question of the ‘talking cure’. On the one hand, pain can be relieved by being spoken of. This is a way of bringing it under control and also of separating oneself from it; what has been spoken can be contemplated: it is no longer of the core of one’s self. But on the other hand, supposing the internal value judgement were not quite as one might expect to formulate it, the work of formulating it might create an emotion that was not wholly there before, or bring forth a dissonance that was itself a source of pain. And insofar as depressed or sorrowful states are characterised by recurring conscious negative thought, it may not always be so helpful to encourage them by talking about them.