I believe that our emotions tell truths that words could never speak.
I’ve always felt things deeply. When I was a grade school student, it broke my heart that my classmates and I were so fickle. Best-friend alliances shifted suddenly and rapidly. The betrayals—of me and of others—left my crying regularly for years. But, even at ages nine and ten and eleven, the horridness of it led me to muse at our cruelty.
The moment when I began to recognize emotions themselves as my personal muse came years later, in college. There was a commotion at an all-school gathering in which a visitor stood up and denounced the student body and the administration. It was riveting, provocative and possibly true. Many people found his words convicting. I was sifting through them and felt, simply, disturbed. I couldn’t say what was wrong with the situation. Still, I knew with reluctant certainty that something was wrong. Something was manipulated.
I talked the disturbing situation over with my mentor, a philosophy professor. He told me that it’s important to pay attention to situations that elicit strong emotions. I realized that these emotions were communicating with me—communicating about me, but also interpreting the world to me. I could trust them.
Even if they are sometimes ignoble or indulgent, emotions say something raw, something unbidden and spontaneous. They uncover things that I wouldn’t otherwise see—relationships, passions, priorities, possibilities, limitations.
These ten years later, my vocation is international relief and development. I spent two recent years living and working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are more than 300 languages in Congo. I spoke part of one—French—and it isn’t even native to Congo. The cruelty and shifting alliances plaguing Congo are reminiscent of my grade school, though incomprehensibly complex and bloody.
Congo exceeds me in all ways. I could never accurately describe it, not in French or English. But I can tell you that I have felt it every day. And while there, I was called upon to make rapid judgment calls that had survival implications. I had to sift through information and make decisions without the help of adequate language. There weren’t even strings of words in my mind. Mostly it was a matter of observing, feeling and acting.
Call it intuition, or following one’s gut, or sniffing out a situation. To me, it’s hearing the muse of emotion—that creative, revelatory source. God, she’s powerful. It’s no wonder I approach her with such trepidation.
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