Remember Far Side cartoons created by Gary Larsen? They were often with animals having some sense of human feelings, often a deeper sense than many humans actually have. Or, Larsen would have a group of people allegedly thinking or doing something that was an exaggeration of some human tendency. I miss Far Side. The cartoons made me laugh at myself and humanity without derision. I remember one in particular that has to do with legs.
The “leg cartoon” as Deb and I refer to it has led to our rather frequent expression of “legging” and “leg people.” The cartoon is one picture of several folks in a bar setting. Everyone in the bar has evidently been in some kind of accident and has had some kind of amputation. Hence, all these people have some kind of peg replacing their lost appendage. There are several people with peg legs, of course, which is what we normally think with some kind of amputation. There are also people with peg arms, peg hands, peg feet, peg ears, and the like. There is also someone with a peg head. This is a barroom scene, so people are evidently talking about the accidents or illnesses that caused them to lose part of their bodies. Seems reasonable.
There is only one caption at the bottom of the cartoon, evidently a statement being spoken by one guy at the bar to another guy at the bar. The inference made from the caption is that the guy with the peg head has just explained how his head had come to be amputated and replaced with a peg head. The guy speaking has a peg leg; the guy listening in the one person in the bar who has a peg head. The caption reads, “That’s nothing. Let me tell you about my leg!” Get it? The guy with the missing leg thinks that his loss of his leg is more significant than the guy who has lost his head!
Do you know “leg people,” i.e. people who always want to tell you about their “legs,” i.e. what is going on with them, what they think, what they feel, or what they did? I know many such people, some very particularly. Perhaps more importantly, I notice that I have “legs” that often seem more important than the peg legs or even the “peg heads” that the other person is talking about. In such circumstances, I want to tell my story. I want to have air time. I want someone to hear my feelings. But in that moment I have run over my friend’s leg story, arm story, or head story. It is a challenge to listen while I have my own legs while hearing my friend’s legs.
Deb and I have been working furiously on our most recent book project, tentatively entitled Let Me Tell You How I Feel. If you have read some of our blogs over the past year you will notice that we have written quite a bit about “feelings.” I suggest you review these, particularly the one on hearing feelings. In brief review “feelings” would be a central ingredient of a person, closely aligned, or perhaps a representation of one’s “inner self.” We think (abstractly) of a human being as composed of concentric circles: God or godlike at the core; then “core self” (some people talk about inner self, spirit, or soul); then the next concentric circle is the gifts and abilities we have, some natural, some learned, some enhanced; this third circle is followed by an expression of these gifts, often in words but with an orientation that is physical, emotional, productive, or cognitive. Our focus in the book is to help people express themselves (this would be the third concentric circle) and take the consequences of this expression.
First of all, note that all these terms are abstract and representational. Furthermore, none of these terms is definable. We note that all the really basic elements of the universe, like time, distance, and mass, are undefinable. Velocity is defined: distance over time, and weight is defined: mass times gravity, but time, distance, and mass are not defined. Likewise, many elements of the human experience are not defined, like love, mind, and even life. We put “feelings” in this category of undefined elements of life. We understand time, life, love, and feelings by observation and effect. What is the effect of time, love, etc.? How do we experience such things? This is how we come to understand feelings: observation and experience. Then we do the hard job of communicating this undefined important matter.
The communication of “feelings” is fraught with danger, not the least of which is the danger of thinking that I can communicate feelings precisely. I cannot. But that does not mean I shouldn’t make an honest attempt to communicate my feelings. I just have to keep in mind that I am not an ET of the 1980’s movie who could just “beam” his feelings to someone else. We are not ETs. We have to use words. Or perhaps other means of communicating like play, work, art, music, or dance. But most of us use words, which is implicitly challenging.
Challenging as it is to express and ultimately communicate feelings, it is much harder to hear them. Hearing someone express feelings causes a host of challenges for the listener, not the least of which is his/her own feelings. (By the way, we make an important distinction between feelings and emotion understanding that emotion is but a subset of feelings, but this is not the time to discuss that important matter.) The important factor in our present discussion is to note that when someone expresses feelings, the person listening will have feelings. If the listener is working to understand the speaker, he must know his own feelings, value these feelings, and keep his feelings to himself. Otherwise, he will be talking about his legs. Nothing wrong with legs, but they intrude on the listening process. This containing one’s feelings while listening is no easy project because everyone has legs.
What I have come to do is simply listen to the “legs” of the person talking to me, and do my best to understand my friend’s story. The more difficult task is when I am speaking about my story and my story is interrupted with the other person’s legs. Painful as it is for me to stop telling my story, I am often required to do so. I like to think that this is an act of grace on my part, but I sometimes render this grace with less than true graciousness, and maybe a bit of resentment. I have come to believe, however, that the person with the legs needs to tell me about her legs, and let it be. Thank goodness I’m a therapist.
Previous blogs on feelings
Forthcoming book on Feelings, probably available in a few months in manuscript form