Emotion and conformity

There are many social situations where one does not feel clear about the appropriateness of a given response.  Several years ago I attended the funeral of a friend of mine, who passed away suddenly and with no warning, at the age of 24.  He was Jewish, which meant that his funeral took place mere days after his death.  It was the first funeral I had ever been to, and combined with the rawness and the shock of such an untimely and unexpected death, this meant that I really had no idea how to behave.  I was struck by the diversity of people’s reactions, and I perhaps tried to take some sort of cue from them.  Some appeared relaxed and composed during the service, and shared jokes and conversed easily afterwards.  I was interested that they appeared able to do that, though later another friend suggested that it might have been because they were not able to not do that.  Other people were literally inconsolable, bested by the blunt brute force of their grief, and passing the day barely able to cope, or perhaps even notice, their surroundings.  Others still seemed numb, hardly saying anything, staring straight ahead.

Looking back, my memories of the service, the gathering afterwards, and my reactions to both, seem distinctly odd.  Two random details stick out in my memory of the service: firstly, that the coffin didn’t seem big enough for the person I’d seen alive just the previous week; and secondly, that I remember crying not at the events or the sadness of them, but because of what struck me as particularly beautiful words in the Jewish funeral liturgy.

So I think our reactions to traumatic events are highly personal, but at times it seems we are expected to behave a certain way. English people like to think of the demise of the stiff upper lip as a good thing, but I sometimes wonder whether in its place there has been substituted an expectation that only a certain emotional response is appropriate in a given situation. In some cases, it seems, this perception that only a conventional response is normally human, can go so far as to result in a judgment of guilt, against all the available evidence. Elsewhere, people who refuse to behave in the way that is expected of them have fallen foul of a system which, once its mind has been made up, will not admit a mistake or imagine a world in which the contrite must not also abase themselves in submission.

This post from the ever-thought-provoking Adam Curtis blog tries to trace how that might have taken place, and I certainly agree with his description of the the absolutely astonishing second video clip (which features a 1970s civil servant called Francis Beveridge describing his ‘cosmic unhappiness’ in measured, emotionless, conversational tones) as being like watching an alien.

But then, I wonder to myself, is it so different from my grandfather’s approach to describing some of his wartime experiences? In the final years of his life we tape-recorded him talking about some of these. I don’t have the recordings handy, and wish I did, but my memory of his description of one particular episode sticks in my mind. The event was the bombing, I think in late 1944, of his prisoner-of-war camp by American aeroplanes, which must have mistaken the camp for a Wehrmacht barracks. My memory is of my grandpa describing the destruction and the deaths of people he knew, but without a great deal of overt emotion; I think he finished by saying that it was ghastly, and leaving it at that. I don’t remember his account being embellished with details of his emotional reactions.

What this reminds me of is the Quaker insight that all humans, no matter what they have done, remain people with dignity, and with a right to be treated as individuals. The alternative is the risk that, demonised because of ‘inappropriate’ or ‘abnormal’ reactions to situations, their needs are not met, and they are dealt further harm as a result.

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