I was an emotionally sensitive child, and I’m an emotionally sensitive adult. Despite the many years I spent trying to shut down my emotions, and despite my proclivities for philosophy and rational argument, I am easily upset by the daily events in my life. When I am extremely tired, I cry at the drop of a hat. When I am extremely stressed, I cry at the drop of a hat. I am also very easily affected by the emotional states of others.
I have a tense relationship with this aspect of myself. While I have grown to value the gifts I seem to possess of sensing and empathizing with the pain of others, I was raised to believe that having strong emotional reactions is a sign of weakness (I have been told too often throughout my life in a variety of ways to “buck up” and “get over my problems” because “crying doesn’t accomplish anything”). Growing up, I wanted to be more like my dad, who was strongly opinionated, mellow, and certainly not emotionally sensitive. In other words, I didn’t want to be one of those crazy “emotional women.”
In Western cultural discourse, emotionality is powerfully and unavoidably gendered. In her book Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, Catherine Lutz argues that in Western thought, emotion has traditionally been aligned with the female (and the rational with the male). As a result, women’s emotionality has been used against them as a repressive technique: “Emotion becomes an important metaphor for perceived threats to established authority; the emotionality of repressed groups becomes a symbol of their antistructural tendencies” (62). However, Lutz points out that the binary of men/rational/good vs. women/emotional/bad isn’t that simple. Emotion is doubly-valenced in contemporary Western discourse:
emotions are associated, in their positive but secondary sense of the engaged, with the spiritual and the sublime. To have feelings is to be truly human, which is to say, transcendent of the purely physical. Whereas emotions stand in close relationship to the instinctual when contrasted with cognition, they emerge as opposed to the animalistic and physical connotations of the instinctual when contrasted with what can be called the spiritual death of estrangement. (66)
Depending on the context, “emotional” can reference either the “animalistic” (i.e. bad) or “spiritual” (i.e. good) aspects of human nature.
In the church I find regular manifestations of the double-valenced nature of emotionality, and these are often closely tied to gender differences. Women’s emotionality is seen as both a sign of their weakness and greater spirituality. While it is true that women are more emotional in church contexts (for example, though I have not done a statistical study, I would guess that women cry more often than men in testimony meetings), my purpose to today is not to critique their emotionality, but, instead, how we respond to and evaluate it.
In church contexts, women’s emotional demeanor as well as the emotional content of their comments often becomes a way for us to measure their spirituality. As Lynnette (and others) observed in a comment on Steve Evans’ BCC girls’ camp thread, one of the less tenable aspects of Girls’ Camp for her was “the testimony meetings where spirituality was measured in tear-production.” While this expectation of emotional production to affirm your spirituality grows less blatant and direct for adult women, it still exists in subtle ways. Additionally, I would be surprised if most men could point to similar experiences. While I am sure there are exceptions, I doubt that a large number of men have felt accused of a lack of spirituality because they did not shed a tear or two or did not tell a heartwarming story while bearing a testimony or teaching a lesson in a church class.
Yes, valuing the spirituality of women is important. However, when women’s emotionality is the primary tool by which we measure their spirituality, everyone suffers, especially women. We can fail to recognize the spiritual women in our midst who may not cry often, but instead, have a deep intellectual understanding of religious concepts. A double-standard can emerge for men and women’s spirituality: men get praised for their ability to explicate scripture and make sound doctrinal arguments; women get praised for their sensitivity and ability to tell stories about birds and children (yes, that last comment was both an exaggeration and slightly bitter). Additionally, women still have to deal with the negative valence of crying “too much” or being “too emotional” and being seen as weak and irrational.
While the Spirit often does affect us on a profoundly emotional level, and though we often talk about the Spirit in terms of “feeling,” spirituality is not equivalent to emotionality, and when we equate the two, women are the biggest losers. For men, an emphasis on emotionality can have the effect of reconditioning societal messages that men should be “strong” or “stoic” or “manly.” For women, an emphasis on emotionality reminds us of the ways in which we have been labeled as “weak,” and it traps us into a form of spirituality that is narrowly defined.
Yet I am torn. As I have learned to understand my own emotional sensitivity and developed my emotional gifts, I have come to increasingly value relationality and empathy, qualities long associated with “emotional women.” Over the past few years, I have made conscious decisions to more strongly encourage the sharing of personal stories and emotional responses while teaching both at church and in academic settings. While I don’t want to solely be associated with my own strong emotional tendencies, they are an important and valuable part of who I am, and I hope that they have an impact on my spirituality.
I have an idea. As long as you don’t tell me to stop being “irrational” or tell me that I’m more spiritual than the average human being or ignore other aspects of my personality that strongly impact my spirituality (such as my scintillating wit or intellectual prowess), I’ll express my emotionality in affirming and empathetic ways (this does mean no stories about birds). Do we have a deal?