It happened like this. My parents and I were watching the Olympics, or possibly the Super Bowl. And whenever they played the National Anthem, I would inexplicably well up. My heart would race, I'd lean forward, and I'd want them to play it again and again, to keep on playing it always. "I feel," I tried to explain to my parents, "... sort of sad. But also... like I'm proud of my country." It turned out I was not, as I thought, the first one in history. "That's patriotism," my dad said. "Oooooh...."
The word was totally knew to me. I was very impressed that someone had been smart enough to come up with it; and kind of baffled all over again -- as one should be -- by the mystery of the fact that something so individual could occur inside me, as if spontaneously, and yet be generalizable to countless others.
That particular emotion is a lot less accessible to me nowadays, by the way, and the Star Spangled Banner now leaves me pretty cold. If there's anything that makes me well up with pride these days for the freedom-loving spirit, it's the sight of Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for it, rather than the anthem. That, however, is beside the point here.
What I'm getting at is purely the fact that one might have expected that, as I got older, I would eventually hear an apt word for every emotion I'd ever had, and my whole internal life would make sense to me as not so incurably individual after all, and the world would be thoroughly demystified and all intellectual puzzles solved and all gods and spirits departed from it. And for the most part, that 's what happened.
Yet there remain at least three emotions that I know with perfect inner certainty I've experienced, but for which I've never yet found a name. The absence of those words has left for me an air of permanent mystery about the world. These three unlabeled emotions are some of the very few -- probably the only, come to think of it -- touch of the numinous I've ever encountered, dancing as they do just outside the reach of the Kantian categories.
It's just so odd. Usually, as you get older, you find that most of the things you thought were distinct impressions and perceptions of your own have actually been thought and felt countless times before, throughout history. But with just these three, it has not yet been so. Hunting for someone else who has experienced them too, therefore, and who can finally name them for me, has felt something like a search for a lost twin.
I've sought for other accounts of these mystery feelings in the pages of literature and in the lives of friends. I've found echoes, resemblances, along the way, but never a single label or terminology to confirm for me that someone else had experienced precisely what I was trying to describe.
Perhaps you have, though, reader. Perhaps we can finally develop a vocabulary for them together. I'd love to hear your own feelings that you don't have words for in the comments section too. Of course, you'll have to use some words to describe them, which is just the trouble. But my child self managed to build his description of patriotism via his concepts of "sadness" and "pride." So let us see if we can work our way up to these inaccessible emotions by way of a similar agglutination of the more primary emotions.
1.) Me-ness. Unless this memory is wholly confabulated, I know just when and where it first happened. I was walking one day between the bathroom and cafeteria at my Texas elementary school -- this was in kindergarten or first grade, I'd say -- when it suddenly occurred to me how utterly bizarre it was that I was myself, an individual, and only myself. Yet there were all these other people running around who presumably has minds as well, and thoughts as well, and feelings as well. Yet I was not any of them, and never would be any of them. Of all the ones I could have been, I was myself instead. What were the odds?
Argh, that's not quite it though. I am pressing against the wall of my own brain here, trying to describe it, and getting stuck.
I have found two examples thus far in the annals of literature that seem to be talking about something similar, but they too elude it at the very last moment -- or else they maddeningly seem, just when you think they've caught it and you can no longer be alone -- to be talking about something else entirely. The first is from Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica:
“And then an event did occur, to Emily, of considerable importance. [... I]t suddenly flashed into her mind that she was she. […] Once fully convinced of this astonishing fact, that she was now Emily Bas-Thornton (why she inserted the “now” she did not know, for she certainly imagined no transmigrational nonsense of having been any one else before), she began seriously to reckon its implications. First, what agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time [… W]hy had all this not occurred to her before? She had been alive for over ten years now, and it had never once entered her head. She felt like a man who suddenly remembers at eleven o’clock at night, sitting in his own arm-chair, that he had accepted an invitation to go out to dinner that night."When I read the novel as a teenager, I immediately had a frisson of recognition. Someone else has experienced it! At last! Someone knows whereof I speak! Perhaps it is actually a near-universal moment of self-differentiation in childhood; an essential developmental stage -- a clean cognitive break with the preexisting phase in which one is -- as Hughes puts it -- merely "a happy little animal— any happy little animal," rather than a conscious and individuated self. Perhaps it is a necessary paradigm shift on the way to adolescence. Yet if it happens to everyone, why have so few described it, and always so inexactly? Have all the rest of you out there been searching for the term for this sensation as well, and are as bereft without it as I am?
Encountering Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" was thrilling for the same reasons. Here was that frisson again, that shock of recognition. The reunion with the lost limb. The ghost digit reattached at last. She writes:
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too? [...]
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
[...] Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
[...] How--I didn’t know any
word for it--how “unlikely” [...]
Yes! yes! That's it! Except somehow, not quite. Bishop's right -- "I don't know any word for it." None of us does. I guess this is what other people mean when they talk about transcendent experiences, perceptions that defy concept, word, and category. I always figured they were just being melodramatic.
2) Over-the-Shoulder. For this one I have never found even the most remote literary analogue. But I continue to experience it to this day, and always under the most oddly specific conditions. (In no way, moreover, can it be induced under any others.) Here's how it goes. Whenever I am alone with someone and they become consumed, of necessity, with some task involving intense concentration -- doodling or writing, say, or showing me something on a map, or finishing the drafting of an email (I first remember experiencing this feeling while watching my kindergarten teacher check something in her calendar, for example) -- I have a tingling sensation of pleasure somewhere in my abdomen. It's not like any other sensation of pleasure one obtains from any other satisfaction, however. It is a ghost's pleasure -- a thrill of temporary non-existence. I can sort of hover there, peering over the other person's shoulder, with one foot inside my being and the other outside of it. Then they close the laptop or the sketch book or calendar, turn to me, and the feeling evaporates.
After I explained all of this recently to my friend Seanan, he suggested that maybe there was a German word for it, since they are so good at coming up with compound words that lack precise English equivalents. Failing in our efforts to find one, he made one up: Über-die-Schulter (over-the-shoulder). And we'd better go with that, since we have no other.
Have any of you ever experienced it, that is, a touch of the old Über-die-Schulter? "Ah, I had such a case of Über-die-Schulter at that meeting today." I could see it catching on.
3) Pity. Now plainly, you will say, they do already have a word for this one, and it's "pity." But I am using this poor term merely because it is the nearest equivalent for what I have in mind, though still wholly inadequate to the task.
By "pity" here, I do not mean that mix of salty Schadenfreude (speaking of words we have to steal from the Germans, in order to make ourselves clear) -- and fear that the same thing might happen to us -- that generally passes for pity in adult life. I do also experience this kind of adult pity, to be sure -- this pitiless pity, that is so transparently about one's own power and has nothing to do with the pitied object -- it is just not the specific emotion to which I refer here.
What I mean is that distinct child pity, that pity that children feel most easily, and that adults learn to avoid at all costs -- whether by sublimating it into political and economic schemes for improvement or rationalizing it away with comforting fairy tales about how the suffering really deserve it -- either for karmic reasons or because they are indolent -- or about how they actually enjoy it (as Philip Carey muses in Of Human Bondage, "[the poor] did not envy their betters [....] they had an ideal of ease which made the existence of the middle-classes seem formal and stiff." Right.)
The pity a child feels upon finding, say, an abandoned chick in a bird's nest that has been blown from a tree, has not got a trace of this fanciful adult footwork behind it. It admits of no possible political or economic solution, nor any cosmic resolution or comforting theodicy. It is one of the most painful emotions I know of, something just awful to experience for any length of time. It is so intolerable because it is a direct interface with the pain of another, with no process of mediation. Adults can be brought to feel it only rarely, because they have become so adept at finding mediators. And why would they not? It pulls the bottoms out from all their plans for personal success and collective advancement. Child-pity shows that the suffering of the world cannot be redeemed. There is no historical consummation later on, no class revolution or national destiny, that could possibly make what has gone before it seem the least bit acceptable. There is no degree of personal enrichment that can make any more bearable the failures of others.
Perhaps because adults are so loath to dwell on it, there are only a few literary examples that seem to deal with this child-pity, in all its rawness. D.H. Lawrence's "City Life" is one:
When I am in a great city, I know that I despair.
I know there is no hope for us, death waits, it is useless to care.
[...] For oh the poor people, that are flesh of my flesh,
I, that am flesh of their flesh,
when I see the iron hooked into their faces [...]
I scream in my soul.
No progressive reform at the end of that one! Nothing about how it's actually better for the poor in the long run, either, or how their want of industry landed them in such a state.
Dorothy Day's experience in prison, realizing how little it redeemed anything to know she had gone there in service to a noble cause, drives at something similar. William James's "Sick Soul" is likewise right on the money. As James writes in the Varieties of Religious Experience, "The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. [...] Some evils, indeed, are ministerial to higher forms of good; but it may be that there are forms of evil so extreme as to enter into no good system whatsoever."
And this too, from an old New Yorker profile of legendary Simpsons staff writer George Meyer. This is child-pity:
"One of Meyer's sisters says that he was once moved nearly to tears upon spotting a store for left-handed people [--] a business that he felt was doomed, and that later inspired the Leftorium, a struggling enterprise owned by the Simpsons' neighbor Ned Flanders."
And I had thought I was the only one who ever cried over a store!
If all religion is based upon an initial encounter with transcendence -- a highly questionable claim, but let's run with it for now -- then I suppose my personal religion would have no other ground to stand on than these three emotions. I have never had the famous "oceanic feeling." I have experienced no deep connection to nature, nor to all being, nor to all beings -- still less to God. Maybe other people have, but not me.
Yet there are things I know I have felt that I cannot put into any existing set of concepts, and that seem even to press beyond the categories of my mind. They are eruptions of the numinous -- take your pick of this or whatever other pretentious phrase you prefer. Whatever we call them, they manage to take place within me even without my having a terminology for them. So much for social constructivism. Long live empiricism! These feelings are pure unmediated sensation. The pity that exceeds pity. The floating out of reach of existence. The realization of the illogic of being me, and no other, the madness of me-ness -- these constitute my direct, unmediated knowledge -- my only revealed truths. I don't know that they quite yield anything close to a satisfying theology, when put all together, but they are what I have to work with.
Unless you have them too. Unless there are in fact those German words already out there, for all three. In which case, let me hear them, so that the world can become disenchanted at last, and I can say, "Ah, so that's what it was!"