Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Who's Your Driver? Thoughts about Feelings

Riley's driver is Joy
A couple weeks ago I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out, and was as I expected, moved to laughter and tears, but like the best Pixar movies it also made me think a lot. In the movie, we follow a 10 year old named Riley, and we experience her life mostly through her emotions (the characters, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.) Without telling too much of the plot of the movie, one of the interesting things for me was the little peeks we get into other character's brains. For most of her life it seems like Riley's driver (the emotion in charge of the control desk in her mind) is Joy, but when we get to see into Riley's mom's head, her driver is sadness, and Riley's dad's driver is anger.

Riley's parents' emotions
When my friend Linden asked me and Owen, "Who's your driver?" it surprised me to find that recently the emotion driving me forward has been fear. That weird little purple character in the movie, frightened of everything. In a lot of my life I think I've varied between different dominant emotions—it's a pleasure to have had joy as a driver for so much of my life—but I like that one of the messages of the movie is that it's okay to have another emotion taking a turn at the wheel. In Inside Out, Joy keeps trying to push Sadness away, out of Riley's head, and that's a really normal thing in our culture. The number one thing parents want is for their children to "be happy" but this movie says (and I think they're right) that sometimes you need to be sad. And when you are sad, sometimes you really need to express that, and you need people you trust and love, who will still love you even if you're not feeling the way they wish you could feel. (For more on this topic see the excellent book, How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk.)

But what does it mean to have fear as my driver? Nothing makes me feel more like a child than fear. When I had lived in the Netherlands nine months, I melted down sobbing because I was afraid that (not kidding) no one would come to my birthday party. People did come, and I had a wonderful birthday that year, but looking back I am amazed at quite how scary the thought of "I have no friends" could be, even as an adult. A lot of the experiences that helped me mature into an adult were doing things that frightened me or seemed challenging in some way, and then excelling in those challenges. Now that I am an adult, life is scary in different ways. The next step isn't usually clear. My support system doesn't necessarily have experience in my situation, and so it's hard for me to parse through the various advice I'm getting. Instead of people around me telling me to go ahead and take the challenging opportunity, there is so much cautious advice. When I was younger I felt like everyone was telling me to reach for the stars, and now there's a lot more "that sounds like a lot of work, be careful—don't get too involved, are you able to pay for that? How will that work with having kids?" Not exactly advice to combat fear.

In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey tells some of the hurdles in her own life in hilarious and compelling detail. Near the end of the book she compares her own paralyzing anxiety about her work and the possibility of having a second child to two small Greek children her mother once babysat. These children had never been out of their parents' care in their entire lives, and were desperate, crying inconsolably. After hours of this, the seven year old Christo cries out in Greek to his little sister, "Oh! My Maria! What is to become of us?" which send's Tina's mother running out of the room in a fit of laughter. Those children are going to be fine. Tina Fey's gynecologist tells her simply, "Either way, everything will be fine." It took hearing those words for her to see that (to anyone with a real problem) she must look like the terrified Greek children; nothing to worry about, but worried out of her mind. Either way, everything will be fine. "But, but, but, what if it's not?" I still want to ask. "What if something terrible happens? What if the thing you desperately want isn't the thing you get? What if you work, and work, and work, and nothing comes of it? What is the people you trust and the things you depend on turn out to be not as dependable as you thought?"

Children's book edition of Maya Angelou's poem
In the Psalms, I read that my feet are set on solid ground. That God is my refuge and strength, if mountains are thrown into the depths of the sea—even then "we will not fear." And on one hand I believe it, but it is also hard, because I do fear—even when the mountains are firmly rooted in place. Elsewhere I hear that perfect love casts out fear, and I believe that too, and I am glad that loving is something I can do, something others already do around me to build courage, and tear down fears. Right now, I'm going to try to be gentle. Gentle with other people, and gentle with myself in the face of fear. But I will also try to check in and see which of my emotions is driving as I make decisions. One of my friends wrote me an email full of stories from her life, but also a bit of strong encouragement. She says she tries hard not to let fear control her decision making, and I'd like to do the same.

Life Doesn't Frighten Me by Maya Angelou (excerpt)

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.


  1. This was so beautiful! And while I think that (at least recently) Joy is my current designated driver, you've made me think about how much of my life is devoted to handling my fear response. I have developed SO many rituals around calming that little purple bugger! So thank you for sharing. It's been a useful thing to meditate on. And certainly he's been ruling my dreams.

    Also, I feel compelled to point out: I flew over 5,014 miles to attend that birthday party. I know that's not quite what you needed at the time, but I think that's the real answer to God's whole "do not fear" thing. The universe is wide and deep, and the problem is probably being addressed in some way you don't see yet.

    In the hope that one of my tactics for dealing can perhaps help you.

    Much love, Claribel!

    1. I thought about including the fact that one of my friends flew around the world to that birthday party. Your coming to visit was a giant turn in my life that year.

      Let's talk more about these tactics. I think what I'm trying to say most with this blog post is not that I'm scared all the time, but that I hadn't realized how much of what I've been doing I've done because I'm frightened. Even going off to visit new places has often been in the spirit of, "if I don't make the plans now, we'll end up heading back to the states, and we won't have made any trips! We'll have wasted the opportunity! Agh! Must make travel plans!" Or even the way I've talked about going for a PhD has often been framed in fear. "If I don't get my PhD, I won't be able to be a professor, and then what will I do?" This is a very different thing than telling people, "The English Department at UPenn is so great! I spent all morning reading their department blogs, yes blogs plural! There's one about books, manuscripts, and such, and another on early modern stuff, another whole posting page just with relevant conferences, it's phenomenal." I think this also explains a bit of why I get such lukewarm responses to my suggestion that I'd like a PhD. Does that make sense?

  2. Also, I have Inside Out theories based primarily on the "Puberty Button", the actually fantastic potential I see for a perhaps-inevitable sequel, and the fact that only Riley's emotions don't conform to a single gender/hairstyle/base-attribute personality.

  3. Thanks for these important thoughts, Clara. By the way, the children really enjoyed that movie too.
    Psalm 23 speaks to my fears too.

    1. Thanks Mom, I'm so glad the kids got to see it! I was wondering if I could buy them all tickets I liked it so much. And yes--it's nice to have so many choral renditions of Psalm 23 in my head all the time. Including that beautiful Issac Watts one, "no more a stranger nor a guest but like a child at home."

    2. Ahhh My Shepherd Will Supply My Need... I love it so.

  4. Clara,

    I started writing a response to this post about how I agree that being an adult is terrifying, but I just want you to know I've had the same fear of having no friends. I got married right out of college and moved away from everything I knew so I could be a wife. That was a wonderful sacrifice and has made me really happy, but I'm a pretty social person and not being in an environment where I can run into someone I know on the street has been at times paralyzing for me. I know Owen and you are best of friends which is absolutely wonderful! But I'm still sorry to have heard you felt that way. I'm glad the birthday party was a success! And know that you'll always have friends around you, virtual or otherwise. I'm sure you know that, but I'm just here to make double sure you know :)


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