Uncle: Here is an old Scottish fable I made up.
Nephew: Oh. Great.
Uncle: One day, centuries ago, in the days of knights and damsels, Sir Thrustalot slew two knights and a dragon before Happy Hour. To celebrate, he and his friends enjoyed a meal of haggis at the local Scottish inn. It was from there they spied through the window a vagabond stealing a saddle from a horse. Sir Thrustalot hoisted his trusty sword into the air and cried, ‘I shall send to purgatory that wretch WITH MY SWORD!’
Nephew: To purgatory?
Uncle: That’s a stopover on the way to heaven.
Uncle: Sir Thrustalot ran outside and skewered the poor thief. Then, while dragging the body off the road, Sir Thrustalot’s companions suggested that perhaps death was a penalty too harsh for such a crime.
Nephew: Not harsh enough, I say.
Uncle: As they re-entered the inn debating the matter they discovered two men walloping each other. Sir Lancelot bellowed, ‘I shall break up this fight WITH MY SWORD!’
Nephew: Don’t tell me . . .
Uncle: Yes. Sir Thrustalot promptly ran his sword through the chest of the man nearest to him, killing him instantly. ‘Why did you do that?!’ cried the man’s shocked opponent. ‘Why did you kill my brother?!’
Nephew: His brother?!
Uncle: Sir Thrustalot’s companions were also appalled. They heatedly remonstrated with Sir Thrustalot, who patiently pointed out that he had successfully broken up the fight.
Nephew: He is not the brightest, is he, this Sir Thrustalot?
Uncle: Before the discussion was over, our hero spied through the window a comely woman walking by.
Uncle: Good looking.
Nephew: Thank you.
Uncle: Be quiet. Sir Thrustalot shoved the protestors aside crying ‘Oh what a fair, sweet damsel! I shall impress her WITH MY SWORD!’
Nephew: Uh oh.
Uncle: He strode out of the inn swinging his sword in an artful way. For extra oomph he sliced a sleeping cat into two neat halves. Sprayed with cat’s blood, the damsel shrieked and ran away.
Nephew: I wonder why.
Uncle: I can’t tell you what happened next because I haven’t made that bit up yet, but you get the idea.
Nephew: No, I don’t!
Uncle: On the battlefield Sir Thrustalot had found himself to be an excellent swordsman, and his skills had saved his life many times. He had come to believe that his sword could solve all problems. He even shaved with his sword. There, I just made that bit up, too.
Nephew: Where are you going with this?
Uncle: I used to work in a government department. Our hardworking staff would find emergency accommodation – a room in a hotel or boarding house – for people who had nowhere to sleep that night. One day, a young couple jumped the queue and screamed for attention. That puzzled me. After all, we were there to assist them and they only had to wait their turn. Later, I expressed my bewilderment to a co-worker, and he explained to me: ‘These people have learned that if they yell loudly enough, people will help them. Today they are frightened they will have nowhere to sleep, and believe that if they ask nicely they will be ignored. They are yelling because they think it will get results.’ I pointed out that their method was counter-productive and would hinder their efforts, and our efforts, to find them accommodation. ‘Nevertheless,’ said my co-worker, ‘yelling is the only way they know to get what they want.’
Nephew: This is all very interesting, but . . .
Uncle: In the same way that Sir Thrustalot dealt with different situations with just the one method, this youngcouple habitually solved their problems with just the one method: yelling. It had worked for them in the past so they were persisting with it. They chose to not find more appropriate ways to meet their needs, which might explain why they were living in a car.
Nephew: I think I could handle living in a car.
Uncle: Someone once asked me for a favour and I refused politely. It was a favour not in keeping with my values. He persisted in asking me. He tried to deceive me. He tried to bully me. I admonished him bluntly and he became angry. He continued to express his anger with me, week after week. ‘Why didn’t that anger dissipate?’ I wondered. Then it dawned on me: he was feeling other emotions as well. Hurt, perhaps? Shame? Disappointment? Frustration? Whatever emotion he felt, he converted to anger. Anger was his default emotion. And, by converting everything into that one default emotion, he couldn’t deal with the emotions he was actually feeling. That’s why he continued to be angry, week after week after week, and that’s why he couldn’t come to terms with the situation. He was ignoring all his other emotions, and if you are not aware of an emotion, it will lead you astray.
Nephew: A van, maybe. I’d travel Australia.
Nephew: Sorry. Keep going. I’m listening.
Uncle: Anger isn’t the only default emotion a person can have. Someone might experience their isolation as anxiety, their anger as anxiety, resentment as anxiety, confusion as anxiety . . . Result?
Nephew: . . . Anxiety?
Uncle: Yes! They’d be an anxious person. Some people convert disappointment to despair, fear to despair, powerlessness to despair . . . The result?
Uncle: Pest. My point is: if you tend to convert your emotions to one habitual emotion, discover what it is. Then get into the habit of looking beyond that default emotion and searching yourself for what you really are feeling. So instead of being led by those emotions, you can begin to deal with them.
Nephew: First stop, Omeo.
Nephew: Nothing. I’m listening.
Uncle: I’ve finished.
Nephew: Brilliant. Wait, what happened to Sir Thrustalot?
Uncle: I don’t know. It doesn’t matter! I was trying to make a point.
Nephew: What point was that?
Uncle: . . .!! Did you say you want to travel around Australia?
Uncle: What’s the furthermost point?
Uncle: When you get there, stay there.
Exercise: Do you have a default emotion?
Step 1. Ask yourself: ‘Do I often get angry? Do I often feel despair? Get lonely often? Do I feel some other emotion, often?’
(If you do, it is not necessarily a default emotion.)
If necessary, ask a perceptive friend if you seem to have the same emotion often. Or monitor yourself for a few days, using a logbook.
Label your emotions regularly and you will find your default emotion (if you have one).
Step 2.Make a list of the times when you felt that emotion. For example, if in Step 1 you answered ‘I feel despair often’ make a list of past incidents prompting that emotion:
I felt despair when I – failed the test.
– was mocked by the children.
– was ignored by my friend.
– lost money.
– found my job painful.
– was rejected.
Step 3. For each instance, search for other emotions you may have felt. List every emotion that comes to mind, including the enjoyable emotions. Repetition is fine. For example: When I failed the test I also felt disappointment, fear, humiliation, insecurity, relief.
When I was being mocked by the children I also felt powerlessness, humiliation, etc.
When I felt ignored I felt . . . (And so on.)
If other emotions came up, it’s possible that in this instance, despair would be a default emotion. That’s because you are feeling lots of emotions, but perceiving them as despair. In the same way that Sir Thrustalot likes to respond to every situation with his sword, you might be choosing to respond to every situation with your default emotion, despair. Or whatever your default emotion happens to be.
Step 4.The next time you feel your default emotion, remind yourself that you are probably experiencing other emotions as well. Search for them. Label them. Get to know yourself.
‘. . . there is a tendency among some men to convert any and all emotional experiences into anger. Feeling anxious, jealous, sad, embarrassed, or ashamed, these men tend to display nothing but anger. You see the justification of this emotional funnel system again and again on television and at the movies. A man’s wife or friend is hurt or killed, but masculine men are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions like sadness and grief – the natural reactions to psychological losses. Instead, they can only experience anger, and they do not react by merely feeling, they must also react by doing, which usually translates into hunting down and hurting or killing the perpetrator, thus doubling the amount of violence that takes place.’