Friday, September 22, 2006

Soothing Down

I remember one time in graduate school, as a tutor, having a conference with a student of mine in the grad student lounge -- we tutors had no offices, so we found space where we could. A British friend of mine, a fellow grad student, was sitting on a couch at the far end of the room. My student had dissolved into tears, because I was giving her a B in her writing class. She was a senior, she wanted to be a writer, and this was the end of all her hopes. I was soothing her down, talking her through it, explaining that getting a B in your writing class at Yale did not sink your writing career, assuring her that I certainly thought she could be a writer, she had a talent for it, there were plenty of people working as respected writers whose work I would give worse marks than I gave her essays, a B was a good grade, a Yale degree was a slam-dunk, she had limitless opportunities ahead, and so on. We spent about half an hour at this, she periodically sobbing. I was vaguely aware of my friend's escalating discomfort. He shifted and squirmed and finally bolted from the room. When he finally returned -- after she was safely gone -- my friend looked at me wonderingly, shaking his head. "I can't believe you sat through that," he said, "I wouldn't have lasted five minutes."

I'm not sure whether he was admiring my fortitude or deploring my idiocy. But it struck me forcibly, because it had simply never occurred to me that a person might do anything else. I thought it was my job as a teacher to soothe her down, but moreover, much more importantly, it was simply my job as a person. It didn't matter whether I liked it -- of course I didn't like it -- but that's what you do with people who are upset. I don't know what my friend would have done -- told her to stop? Sent her away? -- but whatever it might have been, it was entirely outside my conception of the possible.

Emotions first. We've always lived that way, in my family, my wife's family, and "our little family." When someone's wrought up, upset, in tears, we drop everything and just soothe them and pet them and calm them down. And I think it's a good policy, in general. people in that state aren't good for much. Certainly not much good for thinking. Oh, they think they can think, just as drunks think they can drive. But they can't.

But I wonder. I wonder if we've wandered too far down this road. Thinking of how often I hear myself and others in my family say, "I just couldn't..." -- couldn't make the phone call, couldn't keep on working, couldn't talk to my sister. Whatever it is; it doesn't matter. I'm just wondering whether we haven't granted "being upset" too wide a dominion. Does it really have to incapacitate us? Do we always have to attend to it? Does it always come first?

Just wondering. There are many many ways to be in the world. I forget that, over and over.

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