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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

Dissecting emotion by CJ Q. '23

what is feeling

One. Time is not real, because the other day I woke up at ten in the morning and slept at midnight and yet I felt like I didn’t do anything. Time is not real, because I can sit in front of my text editor for an hour without writing. Time is not real, because I can close my eyes and listen to a song for four minutes and it’d feel like twelve.

Time is not real, because the other night I slept at 9:35 PM telling myself that it’d just be a “nap”, because I told a friend that I’d be free for a video call at 10:00 PM. He said that I should take the nap, so I did. I set an alarm for fifteen minutes. I woke up fifteen minutes later. I turned off the alarm and slept again. I woke up at 4:15 AM the next morning.

Time is not real, because it’s already been fourteen months since people were kicked out of campus due to COVID. At once it feels like fourteen months has been too fast, as if everyone left campus just three weeks ago, and too slow, as if several lifetimes stand between me and March 2020.

Time is not real, because—

Two. Here’s the context of all this, okay? Two Wednesdays ago nothing happened. The next day I went out for ramen with some friends. The next day a friend came over and we spent the afternoon just talking. The next day a friend invited me to have lunch with his friends.

The next day nothing happened. The next day I had dinner with some friends on hall. The next day I had dinner with some friends in the area.

The next day nothing happened.

The next day nothing happened.

The next day everyone moved out of hall.

Three. Alan and I ate lunch the other day and we mused about how we’ll never get a normal moveout. Last year we were forced out by the pandemic. This year wasn’t real, because no one was around. Next year, I’ll be moving out of East Campus, and I probably won’t be coming back as a senior. And after that, I’ll be a senior, and I’ll be graduating. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to a “normal” moveout, but honestly?

Everything in the last year has felt flat. Not fake, just flat. Like I’ve been talking to cardboard cutouts and drinking soda without the fizz. Yeah, I’ve talked to people. I have a pod, we played board games! Surely that’s healthy, heck, even more than I could ask for. But it felt like a pale imitation, as if looking at a painting rather than a picture. It’s true, yes, but it’s a true representation of what it’s supposed to be.

This year’s move out wasn’t as bad as last year’s. I knew it was coming, months in advance. I peeled away the days with my friends, spending as much time as I could when I realized that the time we would spend with each other was burning out ever faster. I knew it was coming, and yet! And yet it still hurt.

Alan suggested that maybe the reason it felt like this was because we spent the last year unpacking all the emotions that came up when we were hit by COVID. After thinking about this, I realized that I don’t even know what unpacking emotions means. If it’s getting the emotions out, then that’s not what’s happening, because heck if I feel anything. If it’s trying to analyze the emotions, then that’s not what’s happening, because my emotions feel as impenetrable as always. If it’s understanding where the emotions came from, then that’s not what’s happening. Each day that passes is just another day that I’m removed from what caused the emotions in the first place, only making it harder to analyze.

Maybe the problem with framing this as “unpacking emotions” is that it starts with the assumption that I had emotions in the first place, that I was just ignoring or repressing or negating. But what if that’s not true?

Four. I feel nothing. That’s a lie. I’m feeling something. But I don’t know what feeling it is, exactly. That’s another lie. I know some of the feelings I’ve felt. I don’t know all of them, but I can start with the ones I do know the names of.

There’s the feeling of eating dinner with friends you haven’t seen in months. This is joy, maybe connection. It’s a feeling that makes you want to experience more of it. Related is the feeling of hugging someone you haven’t hugged in forever, especially when that hug lasts longer than a minute. That one is comfort. It’s a feeling that you get when you believe things will end up fundamentally okay.

There’s the feeling of being in a group of people and not knowing anyone else. This is isolation, which I like to think of not on its own, but in contrast. If you’re in your room, that’s just being alone. If you’re walking through a crowded subway station, there’s just lots of people. But if you’re surrounded by people who are feeling connected with each other and you aren’t, that’s isolation.

There’s the feeling of missing something you care for, often paired with the knowledge that you won’t experience it for a while. There’s aching, and soreness. There’s not really a single good word for it in English, I think. But maybe this is longing, or maybe desire, mixed with grief. It’s memory wrapped with want.

Beneath these, and different from any of these, is another feeling, one I don’t have a word for.

Five. There’s some nice things about having long hair, like how I can bleach just the lower half of my hair and it looks neat. But hair has weight, something I only learned after growing my hair out for the past year. I can feel it when I walk, when I run, bouncing, being blown by the wind. When I get my hair cut I will leave behind the weight of a year’s worth of hair.

Gloves protect your fingers from the world at a cost. They restrict motion and dexterity, but more than that, they filter out the spectrum of touch. You could wear fingerless gloves, but then your fingers aren’t protected. It’s just like, a general principle that if you want to be able to touch something, you need to be open to the possibility of getting cut.

When you sit on your hand for a few minutes and then pull your hand out, you get the pins and needles feeling, which feels like tingling, or numbness, or a very mild electric shock. I first heard of the phrase pins and needles only three years ago, which was also when I learned that it’s caused when the nerves in a part of the body are prevented from transmitting feeling to the rest of the nervous system. When whatever blockage is removed, the nerves become active again, resulting in the feeling. It’s similar, in a way, to being woken up by sunlight, and seeing everything as momentarily bright after seeing darkness for so long.

Shackle yourself and the world can’t push you. But what if you want to be pushed?

Six. They say we give advice we wish we could’ve given ourselves. I’d like to take this further, and say that we ask questions we wish we could ask ourselves. So when I asked a friend, several nights ago, whether there was anything he wished he could be more vulnerable about, it was really because I wanted to ask myself. What do I want to be more vulnerable about?

It may seem weird, for me to ask this. From the outside, I guess, I could look like a vulnerable person. I’ve laid out my feelings in front of others so many times, in anonymous forum posts to college applications to conversations with strangers to blog posts for the whole world to see. And yet! And yet, when I dig into myself, there’s an insecurity present that wants to express itself, but is scared of doing so.

What kind of insecurity? I don’t know. It’s another one of those things I know without words to exist. I can’t pinpoint it, but it’s related to relationships, and how I interact with people, somehow. Why do I feel scared talking about it? I don’t know. There’s something inside me that flinches when I try to dig into it, so I haven’t tried to, yet.

Seven. There’s the feeling of having said too many goodbyes over the past few days that you can’t stomach the thought of saying another. Of trying to start a conversation with someone you know you won’t be seeing for months, if not years, and not knowing where to start. This is exhaustion.

There’s the feeling of stillness. Not the peaceful kind of stillness, but the kind beset by paralysis. The kind that locks you in place so much that not even painful tragedy or joyous news can move you. This is frigidity.

There’s the feeling of lying in bed and not wanting to get up. Of looking at your to-do list, seeing only three items in it, and only digging up enough energy to do a tenth of the first one. This is malaise.

These are the feelings that my therapist asks me about during our sessions. These are the feelings that my friends ask me about when I talk to them. These are the feelings that I ask myself while lying in bed at night. I roll these questions in my head and I answer, not as much as I wanted to.

Have you packed your things? Not as much as I wanted to.

Have you gotten any work done? Not as much as I wanted to.

Have you said your goodbyes? Not as much as I wanted to.

my bedroom in east campus

Eight. For three days earlier this week Cambridge became cold. The twenty-five degree early summer heat was paused momentarily, reaching fifteen degree, even ten degrees weather. Rain poured and wind blew. The heat in East Campus has already been turned off, so I wrapped myself in layers and blankets to keep warm.

I didn’t feel like doing anything, but I had things to do. I wanted to write this blog post. I needed to move to MacGregor. I needed to pack my things in neat little boxes and my crammed suitcase. I needed to throw things away, things that I didn’t want to bring with me. It really shouldn’t be that hard, the process of packing, given how few things I already had.

And yet! And yet, it took me five days to finish packing. And yet, I walked down the halls of Floor Pi, expecting to see people who aren’t there. And yet, every time I pass by a room I know to be empty my heart sinks a little deeper in my chest. I am filled to the brim with the realization that all of this will leave, all of this will fade into dust, and there is nothing I can do to save it, because that’s just the way things work.

Nine. One of the things I valued so much about myself was my spontaneity. Day trips to another city, walking downtown at three in the morning, even running away from home—these were all things that I just did on a whim. Now, it feels like that well has dried up, and what little spontaneity I have left I use up on deciding what video game to play next.

Oh, to have that again! I’m only twenty years old, but I already yearn to be younger. I want the opportunity to do random things again, to go places and talk to people and be bold. There’s no shortage of things to do in Boston, and I don’t really have much to do this summer until July. So many museums to visit! So many things to construct! So many events to go to! So many places to eat and people to meet!

Heck, I don’t even want to be a kid again. Whatever happened to that wide-eyed first-year who came into MIT and found everything colorful? I’m not going to even ask to be a first-year again! Just grant me this:

Ten. Give me my sophomore year back.

There’s the feeling of crying. It’s when tears form in your eyes. It can happen while you’re lying in bed, thinking about what could’ve happened in the past year had it been a “normal” year, rather than this stupid “new normal” one. You’re crying because you’re thinking of all the things you could’ve done, all the people you could’ve met. Weekly free food from ESP meetings, free shirts from career fair, baking cakes for your friends’ birthdays, playing tractor at three in the morning. This is grief.

Through my life, I have been spared from the worst of grief. I’ve only had to cope with the loss of one close friend. I used to think that grief could only be used in the context of death, but I have learned that the word corresponds to something wider, a general response to loss. Although the loss of a single year of college doesn’t even come close to the pain it must be to lose someone, I think the word grief is apt, in the sense of, say, the grieving process, or the reactions caused by grief, being at least a little similar.

The word has its roots in Latin gravis, meaning “heavy”. From gravis we also derive the English gravity. Even in Tagalog we could describe this feeling with kabigatan “heaviness”. It fascinates me that the association of grief with heaviness has persisted for so long, and so universally. As if our bodies themselves recognize when we have lost something, and pull us down.

my bedroom in macgregor

Eleven. How do people cope with grief? Well, how do people cope with emotions in general? I mean, I wouldn’t know. I can only really talk about how I’ve learned to cope with my emotions.

There’s the feeling of lightness that comes when you confess something you want, the courage it takes to lay bare your dreams to someone, the balancing ask of disclosing what your feelings are. This is vulnerability.

Some feelings, like joy, or connection, or comfort, only ever really come with being vulnerable. To be joyful is to open ourselves to the world of unexpected wonder. To connect with someone is to share things in common, and often that thing is weakness. And to seek comfort is to retreat, and to acknowledge that something is missing.

It’s called vulnerability because it comes with the risk of being hurt. Exposing oneself too much can push people away. It can alienate the very person you’re trying to open up to. It’s called vulnerability because you are admitting that you want something, which, by its nature, means you’re admitting that you’re incomplete. That you’re imperfect, and flawed.

And yet! And yet, this is something we already knew. We know that no one’s perfect. We know that everyone’s fighting battles. And yet, it is still so terrifying to admit our weaknesses, so mortifying to be known. To fully know oneself includes knowing one’s life from the shoes of others, and we can only do this by opening ourselves to pain.