There's a link I'm trying not to click right now. Specifically, it's the one that will take me to the news story currently making the rounds of a baby elephant in China that cried for 5 hours after being attacked and rejected by its mother. You may have already seen or heard about it. All I know is I went to sleep one night blissfully unaware that elephants produce tears and woke up to nonstop baby elephant chatter. If I had a nickel for every well-meaning person who emailed or tweeted me the link, I'd have close to a dollar. (You know, we really need to adjust that phrase for inflation.)
The point is that I don't want to read this story. I don't want to feel the sadness it will make me feel. Remember that scene in Dumbo where he's a baby and his mother is rocking him in her trunk and everyone is crying, especially me? That scene wrecked me. Years of therapy can't remove that image from my memory and it wasn't even real.
OK, fine. I just clicked the link.
I couldn't help myself! I'm powerless in the face of baby animals who are experiencing strong emotions! And then I told myself that I definitely wasn't going to try to find video footage of the crying elephant... while trying to find video footage of the crying elephant because I was curious what an elephant's wails sound like. Apparently, seeing a photo of its puffy red eyes and wet trunk wasn't enough. But what if the video contains footage of the mother stomping the baby, I wondered? A nervous flutter went through me. Most of me didn't want to see that, but there was a tiny bit of me that was sort of curious and I'm disturbed that part is in me.
(Mercifully, I didn't find anything.)
I'm confused by this compulsion to watch and read things that will make me experience a cocktail of emotions I'm trying to avoid. I think on some level I actually do want to feel these feelings -- ones I'm repressing in my daily life -- and so these stories act like little emotional release valves.
The other day, I thought it would be a good idea to watch videos of people with cochlear implants hearing for the first time after a lifetime of deafness. Have you seen these videos? Instant tears. I don't mean the kind of thing where you see it and then think about it for a second and then tear up; I mean you're watching and the person in the video starts crying and before you can even process what's happening, you're a puddle.
I've always somewhat harshly judged the people who enjoy brutal, gruesome or excessively violent videos and movies. I'm talking about the people who love torture porn franchises like Saw or Hostel and pass around YouTube videos of beheadings; and to a lesser degree, the Tosh.0 audience who enjoys countless clips of people falling and getting hurt. To my imagination, these viewers are watching and either feeling nothing or worse, laughing at the misfortune of others. I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't too harshly judged them.
Maybe they aren't bloodless automatons but people playing their own version of emotional Russian roulette -- trying to see how much they can tolerate. Maybe they're afraid of their own emotional reactions and trying to practice tamping them down -- an understandably desirable skill in a culture that values stoicism.
To be clear: Watching videos and movies where you identify and empathize with what you're watching (we're all that baby elephant) is not the same as watching something where the victim is objectified. But I'm beginning to wonder if the desire to view both doesn't come from a similar place inside -- trying to learn to release and restrict our own unmanageable emotions.