By Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings
I’m lucky I enjoy fiction. From childhood, I’ve steadily immersed myself in the lives of others, living and traveling vicariously, feeling admiration for heroines like Lauren Wilkinson’s title character in American Spy, and contempt for the Macon Deads of the world.
From ages 8-18, I even worked as a Junior Page at our neighborhood’s branch of the Public Library. I learned more from Mrs. Virginia Smith and Ms Tillie Earle than from my beloved grandmother, since I saw them hours at a time each week for over 10 years, considerably more than I could see my Grandmama, who lived farther away.
Under these devoted librarians’ tutelage, I read everything from Dr. Seuss and kid detective stories to an ocean of teenage romances plus plays by James Baldwin, novels by Chaim Potok and James Michener, and all the Black Arts poetry I could inhale.
In the summer I was 8 or 9, I read Gone With the Wind during my family’s road trip to Atlanta to visit our former minister and his wife. While everyone else was thrilled about the Braves game at the center of the visit, I remember pleading to see one more Peachtree Street landmark or tourist trap.
I had plunged into Scarlett’s obsessions with romance and free enterprise, her determination to live an extraordinary life, before we left Mobile, and I happily had many chapters left to consume on the drive home a week later. Gone With the Wind was my prepubescent refuge from 3 rowdy brothers and all the adults in our midst. It peopled my dreamscape when the landscape outside our station wagon went lackluster.
But this blog isn’t the essay I might someday write about the impact (damage) of Mitchell’s Scarlett, owner of Mammy and Tara’s docile butler and nameless hundreds of other enslaved people, on a brown-skinned precocious southern girl. This is not that piece.
My rapture in the fictions I read in youth—from If Beale Street Could Talk to The Exorcist, from Maud Martha to Funnyhouse of a Negro—fed my imagination with ferocity, but, again, this blog is more than reminiscences of my life as a young reader.
Instead, my point is I’m lucky to enjoy fiction. Of course, I’ve read a lot of literature throughout my career. Reading literature is my career. But last week, researching help during a crippling bout of procrastination, I learned an overlooked advantage of reading fiction: a skill psychologists call emotion differentiation, or emotional granularity. This skill can be learned; when applied, it helps lessen emotional distress and even disrupts the fierce grip of perfectionism. It can quell the emotions behind harmful behaviors like TV-binging and anxiety eating.
Turns out, the heart of emotion differentiation involves naming emotions precisely, that is, the skill of the greatest fiction writers, poets, and playwrights. The more refined a person’s emotion vocabulary, the more clearly—granularly--they can state and understand their embodied experiences. And, of course, our emotions always affect our bodies, and vice versa.
As an example, an advantage of a high degree of emotional granularity includes distinguishing between, say, resentment one is asked to volunteer to engage in months of restorative justice exercises with faculty colleagues, and hopelessness about the efficacy of restorative justice processes.
Naming resentment as an uppermost feeling positions one in a passive role. First, let’s acknowledge how complex emotions are and that it’s possible, typical, to feel both negative/unpleasant and positive / pleasant emotions at the same time. Definitely, it’s natural to feel resentful being lied to. The bosses are straight up dissembling to say participation in their restorative justice process is voluntary. They haven’t revealed the consequences to non-participants, but, c’mon, everyone knows there will be consequences for not towing the line. The unknowns fuel the resentment. Not participating feels so risky, the choice not to participate doesn’t feel genuine.
Second, however, and crucially, the costs of not participating only seem unbearable. I mean, I can and I will bear restorative justice, and I know on a deeper level it benefits me to participate. Yes, I’m “the one” in this case: my unit at work has the so-called opportunity to engage in restorative justice.
When I pause to apply emotion differentiation, when I explore the utility of resentment as an emotion I’m feeling, I come up empty. That is, I realize the potent energy I feel when I even think the words “I resent ___!” is much more powerful than what I find when I unpack my feelings. Because then I name my emotion as hopelessness, and, realizing that, I now feel miserable.
Thank goodness, though, I’m not blue very long.
After practicing emotion differentiation and perceiving hopelessness as the more granular feeling I have about the department’s restorative justice work, I recognize I have a greater degree of power over my feelings. I can mindfully regulate them. Not only that, but I also have power over the degree to which I participate in anything life flings at me. Options and equanimity: what’s not to love?
It’s true I can’t force anyone else’s participation in restorative justice—not that of the problematic faculty who have incited it--any more than our bosses can literally require us to show up and do the right thing (for real, Spike Lee). But seeing I have control over the degree of hope I bring to the process—not naivete but mature, thoughtful expectations of the paradigm’s scope and limits—that level of control soothes me. Even better, it fundamentally evaporates my initial resentment.
Oh, trust me: I don’t expect much. But I know the fullness of my participation is up to me, so I have a role to play to in the outcome. Nothing to resent about control over my own behavior.
Besides, if I’m gonna waste any of my time left on this earth, I’d sooner do it with a good book.
Until next time,