Disability and Big Emotions

I am a man of big emotions which means I have flaws and virtues in accord with intensity. It also means I’m suited to a life in the arts, right for catching the arsenic lobster falling straight toward your head, and once it’s in my arms I’ll reshape it like a balloon animal and gift it to you. I suppose like all poets I’m useful that way. There’s an old horse inside you eating spring grass and he was always inside you, and I can help you feel gratitude for the return of May. I say gratitude is a big emotion. I am grateful for the grass and wonders. I’m often moved to tears by nothing more than whispering, undecipherable leaves. When I wake I’m surcharged with streaming immanence and hope—the two main ingredients of innocence. Some days, like the poet Robert Bly, I dance in my kitchen.

Big Emo means one’s married to intensity and there’s no help for it. By this I mean one takes the passions however they come, though not without love. By this I mean I will raise my voice in defense of honesty, clarity, human dignity, or any idea that will help others live with respect. Big Emo means believing in integrity and scrupulousness. This is why I’m a good friend and not a very good politician, for I won’t promise things I have no intention of pursuing. Big Emo means, when mediated by intelligence, knowing what one stands for and why. It means entering into the public square, essentially radicalized. Paulo Freire puts it this way: “[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled.”

And so intensity is unveiling. One is again the child pointing out grandpa’s flaws—“you said one thing but did another…”—and living this way, bearing this quality makes one occasionally insufferable for systems, committees, cub scout leadership forums, conferences of a hundred kinds tend toward agreement that assures small transformations at best, and stagnation at worst. The man or woman or “they” who lives Big Emo will itch all over in such settings.

Inquiry is suffused and directed by big emotions. If you don’t occasionally weep in your laboratory you’re not doing science. If you don’t want praxis to fall over dead you’re not sufficiently stimulated. This is why teachers are so sad. They understand life without passion, the life too many students adopt, is a cultural invasion—“the combine” as Chief Bromden understands it in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the mechanized but inapparent machinery of normalizing society. Faced with this understanding the Chief spends his life in the mental hospital pretending to be mute and deaf, hiding all emotion.

Big Emotion doesn’t mean being contrary or aggressive, though if you live an emotional life you’ll likely make social mistakes and perhaps more than one. If a meeting tends toward the adoption of small ideas and you had what you thought was a larger vision you may become jaded, say something untoward, and where Big Emo and disability are concerned this is not unlikely for like Chief Bromden those of us with disabilities who are passionate are often disappointed, misunderstood, and even patronized. Big Emo will always confirm your wounds.

I believe emotion and disability are the most complicated subject on earth for the history of disability and the passions is a long and terrible one, replete with lobotomy, electroshock, beatings, big pharma, isolation wards, homophobia, ostracism, and all the concomitant demands to be quiet. One of the great backstories in American poetry is the fact that Allen Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl” represents a bold refusal to be quiet about the effects of forced institutionalization. (Ginsberg had been sent to a psychiatric hospital because of his gayness and his passionate intensity.)

If disability and passion are inseparable it’s because the imprints, the names of physical differences have such terrible and accumulated power and the names have consequences and the consequences create real wounds. How many times have I been told I don’t belong in a room? I can’t count the occasions any more.

Big Emotion means endurance. It means carrying in your shadow the compensatory love of living itself. It means loving others though you don’t always agree. If that sounds like pap then you haven’t tried it. I’ve had profound disagreements with many and I learn from each experience. I go home and sit beside open windows and listen to the rain and stillness. I sense there is a tiny violin in my shadow. I decide to learn how to play it.

What else? I’m no better or worse than anyone else who feels our job as long as we’re alive is to make the world more agreeable and accepting for freedom, health, and collective life.

Big Emo.