Humble Tea: Chiseling words from feelings

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I am a big fan of the written word. To me, the processes of writing and reading are some of the best ways to know what you think and think what you know. Like all of us, I have a lot of gut feelings as I experience life going by from day to day. My inner petulant child is always looking at these gut feelings and asking “why why why?.” Why do I feel this way? Why must I feel this way? Why should I feel this way? Sometimes, the answer to these questions is not obvious, sometimes to a painful extent.  

I’ve found that some gut feelings stick with us over long spans of time. We are unaware of them, but they imperceptibly influence our lives, suggesting different directions and decisions we take and make. Some gut feelings ask that they be answered immediately before anything else can be done. With these gut feelings that I always have this endless desire to understand better, I’ve found in written words the best gateway to answer the riddles within. 

The humility to be found in reading and writing comes from very much the same place. One is about understanding your own perspective, the other about understanding another’s perspective. And what is perspective but the experiential logic of our lives? When I write, I’m trying to make a schematic, when I read I’m trying to understand one. It brings forth the same questions that I ask myself about gut feelings – the same “why why why?”. Why should I write this and not this? Why should this writer write this of all things? 

With the same question of why, what is the meaningful distinction between written word and gut feeling? Our written words are a physical monolith to a span of time, while a feeling is a blip in time. The feeling is the thought that you grab to chisel into words. As time goes on, I’ve started to understand feelings and thoughts as two sides of the same coin. A thought is just a colloquialism for a feeling made benign or maybe a feeling is a particularly turbulent thought. When we find certain general or overarching feelings persisting, we can abstract them into thoughts, and thoughts into words on the page. 

Where does humility play into this? I’ve included the word ‘humble’ in this column, so it’d be worth all our while if I talked more about it. I already mentioned the humility of understanding the perspectives of others, which is especially evident in reading, but what about the humility of writing? Doesn’t writing intuitively seem like a self-indulgent publicity stunt? I think there is some truth to this. Part of me (that part known as my ego) likes putting my writing out purely because it inflates my self-esteem. That’s something we all need every now and then, but can quickly become excessive if you have no other goals.  

The humility in writing is that, if you are taking into balanced consideration both your audience and yourself, you are indirectly confronting yourself and questioning your feelings. The broader your audience is, the more humility there is to gain. In writing for an audience, you have to ask yourself which of your feelings are important, justified, or at the very least which ones you’d be willing to present to an audience. Even if you’re not writing opinion pieces, there is so much personhood squeezed between the words of reporting. Every reporter has a style, a personality, writing patterns and thinking patterns. Even if they are reporting on events that are pretty benign or that they don’t have a stake in, there’s still a lot they can ask themselves about how to frame those more benign feelings, how they want themselves perceived in relation to them. Like boosting your self-esteem, boosting your self-consciousness is also a virtue if it doesn’t get out of hand. 

I was drawn to these ideas over the summer when I was in the middle of researching with one of our history faculty, Professor Greg Milano, about philosophies of Italian Fascism. I hope it goes without saying that neither I or the professor are fascist sympathizers in the least, but I really got to thinking about the use of reading some of the gross fascist source material we were going over aside from in the service of research. I found an affirmation of my feelings (ones I didn’t have words for yet) on the matter from a viral news clip of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in a congressional hearing. Milley defended the necessity of someone in his position studying Critical Race Theory, an academic theory predominantly regarding American race relations: “I’ve read Mao Tse-tung, I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin – that doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend.” 

Regardless of your feelings on General Milley, communism, Critical Race Theory or fascist philosophy, I think there is an invaluable lesson in his ‘situational understanding’. When we have feelings (or even when we don’t), there is a wealth of wisdom to be gained from confronting that fact. In the oversaturated world of media we live in, this can seem like an impossible task, and it is, only because it’s a continual process rather than a task. How do you go forward with that? I implore everyone to stay confident and stay humble, we often forget that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.