So today was Thanksgiving, which is already a super problematic holiday; however, my family tries to focus on the fact that we all get a break off of work to be together with the ones we love. My family is pretty great; we’re all liberal democrats who are well-read and well-traveled. A middle-class, Midwest, bad humored group of people…that’s my family.
Of course, we were going around the table (there were only 9 of us) and saying what we are all thankful for; this year, my oldest cousin decided to add the rule “you can’t repeat what anyone before has said.” My uncle then proceeds to start with “I am thankful for all of the wonderful friends and family that I have who support and love me.”
Well, then, guess that one’s taken.
My oldest cousin’s husband was next (he was thankful for death metal) and then my oldest cousin (who was thankful for technology and how much it allows us to globalize our information sources and stay connected), but then it was me and I was scrambling to come up with something to be thankful for. I could have said something cheesy like “I’m thankful for Pokémon” – which isn’t a lie – but I knew that’s not what I needed to say; I needed to say something that was meaningful and was seriously thankful for.
The words were out of my mouth before I had a full comprehension of what I was saying: I was thankful for the unspoken language of humanness.
The language of smiles and laughter, or tears and broken hearts; emotions are universal. Again, my therapist recently enlightened me on the differences between emotions and feelings:
“Emotions are physiological responses to situations; they are universal and felt by every single person on this planet. Feelings are the subjective responses to situations; they are very individual and can be felt very differently.”
Emotions and the physiological responses are built into human biology: we cry when we’re sad, we radiate joy when we’re happy, we raise our voices or try to assert dominance when we’re angry – these are natural responses that serve three different functions:
- To communicate to others
- To communicate to ourselves
- To motivate ourselves
Let’s ignore the second two; those will be for another day. The first reason for emotions: to communicate to others – that’s so cool. We literally have responses built so that others around us can better understand how we’re feeling. Crying has been socialized to be perceived as weakness (don’t even get me started), but everyone knows that if someone is crying, they need help; something has happened that has broken this person down. If someone is yelling or lunging towards us, we can assume that they are defending themselves because they feel attacked; it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, these physical responses are the same for all emotions.
Smiling at someone on the street is a kind thing to do, and it is meant as a welcoming hello; when someone is sitting on the apartment complex’s steps crying, something is probably wrong; and if someone says something in class with a raised voice as a response, they probably felt attacked. These are true around the world – as in, these are things that I have seen throughout my life in the US, but are also things that I saw and experienced in China.
I would smile at the older couple serving dinner, and they would slip in an extra dumpling or two. There was one night when a group of us (American students and their Chinese partners) went out, and the noise was too much and the number of people in the club was too high, so I started crying. My roommate took me outside, and one of our Chinese friends came out to ask if I was okay. I said I was fine, but he looked at me and said, “You are crying. I do not know why, but I know that you are not okay.” I was so taken aback that I actually stopped crying. It seems dumb, of course someone crying is upset, but it was as if I suddenly understood how instinctual emotions truly are.
Showing emotion does not make you weak or vulnerable; and I can’t stand people who think that. Showing emotion makes you human, it makes you relatable, and it allows people to help you. Showing emotion is something that so many people think of as helpless or immature; however, the exact opposite is true.
By expressing your true emotions, you are putting yourself out into the world and asking humanity for support, or showing your own support for others. A kind smile to a stranger can make their day, and you know it to be true because someone has smiled at you, and it made your heart a little lighter. Seeing someone crying on the phone makes your heart ache, because you have felt their sorrow, too.
So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the human language of emotions and everything that they have to offer: the good and the bad, the ups and the downs; emotions have been there to help me express my need for support, and express my love for others.