“…in the darkness binds them,” echo the ominous words of Tolkien regarding the One Ring. I have just finished reading this chapter to my middlest son. In doing so, I am but one in a long expanse of parents engaging in a timeless exercise – reading the Lord of the Rings to their children. This line, though, has always struck a chord. The One Ring, and the terrible places it pulls its bearers, is a kind of metaphor for the dark inner expanses a person can unwittingly visit.
These places are locations created by our innermost emotional landscapes. The same chord that the little line of poetry accompanying the One Ring’s lore strikes is also plucked by Francis Bacon’s, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. It’s a painting that describes a moment of darkness none of us get to avoid. We need Tolkein, Bacon, and so many others, we need them to help us navigate things we don’t understand, emotional topographies we traverse, but cannot map. Luckily, it isn’t only the dark corners of our emotional chasms that defy attempts at description. It is our brightest as well.
From the back of the passenger van, twelve hungover collegiate geology students sing along with Stevie Wonder’s, Superstition. There is unabashed seat dancing. In a dark theater at two in the morning a full house of invitees to the premiere of Star Trek: Generations treats a movie screen to a standing ovation. Overflow crowds in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall who don’t have tickets to the main event stand enraptured as the unseen, but amplified voice of the man who would become America’s first black president unfurls a vision of hope and change like a newly designed flag hoisted on a heretofore unimagined and improbably beautiful vessel.
What do these things do that regular language cannot?
There is a kind of unknowing which is pervasive to the human experience. It is deep and wild and brutally unfair. It leaves those of us who sense this unknowing like weavers without looms or bee-keepers without hives. It is all around, everywhere I go. This unknowing is linguistic in nature, emotional by character. I came into this life not knowing how to navigate the vast nomenclature of emotional strata that a human life – my human life – can contain.
And you probably did too. We – most of us – cannot say with words what we’re feeling. Those words we do have are insufficient. There aren’t words that can encapsulate what losses we suffer, what triumphs of joy are possible. For this unknowing, there are consequences. We all pay for it in different ways. Our lives so often have the characteristic of a good surgery – an activity where anesthetic is necessary. I sure swallow my share. Vast swaths of us sway in the thrall of robot controlled pop country radio, life’s-minutes-consuming online tower defense exercises, the latest Marvel adventure, mega-church, Fox “News,” Insta-scrolling.
However, as dark as this time feels, I believe that for as many of us who appear locked in the thrall of emotional anesthetic, there are as many who would not be. I also meet these people every day, I even sometimes turn aside those blue pills of everyday noise myself. The most interesting, the most surgingly important actions we will take are what happens when the pop-radio station is turned off. What are we left with? Where can we go? When a person decides to trace the topo lines of their own emotional landscape, what happens?
In all her work, a common thread that Brene Brown advocates for is dismantling the protections we wear in the world to keep us safe from emotional landscapes that would threaten to drown us. More specifically, to let down the armor that protected us in our earlier life, but which now no longer serves. Giving up this armor – the anesthetic that keeps emotional radars keyed down – is uncomfortable in the way that fever is uncomfortable. Few of us want that. An inspiring, if fictional, character who desperately wants that is Commander Data. Data, as an android, is a character who has no emotional landscape, but where most of us look for paths around the overwhelm, Data is a being who desperately searches for one.
I imagine the two of them meeting – not in a bar – Brene Brown claims sobriety as her superpower and Data isn’t a human being who can get drunk, but maybe they meet in an antiquated tea-room. Something about old oak, honey-scented candles, and steaming cups of Earl Gray feels like an appropriate setting. After some cursory pleasantries, I imagine Brene Brown marveling at the attempts Data makes to create an emotional landscape where one does not exist. He paints. He creates poetry, music, engages with literature, and on and on. His searching is beautiful. Meanwhile, I imagine Data being at a loss to decipher Brene Brown’s life’s work – her attempts to bring awareness for the vast masses to attenuated emotional landscapes that we all so adamantly tranquilize. Why wouldn’t a human, filled to the brim with emotional potential, choose to access that? Why would a person choose to shut that off? Where’s the overlap in the Venn diagram there?
Curiosity is a life preserver that can buoy our heads above the overwhelm. Curiosity is the back-brace that can support a lack of language that might describe unfamiliar emotional topography. Curiosity can replace defensiveness and shut down self-doubt. Curiosity can compel a person to seek creative ways to explain joys and darknesses. Curiosity is the gateway drug to awe and wonder. Curiosity – real, vibrant, searching curiosity – can swell a heart. Why does the Grinch turn the sleigh around at the top of mount Crumpit? His heart can’t grow three sizes that day unless upon hearing the Whos singing down in Whoville, he first asks the question, “How can it be so?”
What does it mean to be a person who has suffered unexplainable loss? Mary Oliver answers:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
To hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go
to let it go
What does it mean to feel drowning in joy? On the facing page of the same collection of poems, Mary Oliver answers again:
But joy does that,
I’m told, in the beginning.
I’ll come here only
sometimes and with a
middling hunger. But now
I climb like a snake,
I clamber like a bear to
the nuzzling place, to the light
salvaged by the thighs
of bees and racked up
in the body of the tree.
Why do I love reading Tolkien to my child? To teach him, for the better I think, how to welcome wonder. So that when he’s on his hands and knees, ugly-crying for a loss in his life, he’ll have an inkling of how to summon a kind of language that might help him navigate the expansive topography of that loss. And make no mistake, I will read Mary Oliver to him as well, so that when overwhelming bliss finds him, he might remember the light salvaged by the thighs of bees and he’ll know how to sink in and revel in the exquisite warmth of the joy he’s found.