Emotional Vulnerability: Its Causes and Cure
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my wife’s traveling with another guy, and the reaction of a conventional friend who asked, “Are you OK with that?” At the time, it didn’t occur to me that she might be talking about jealousy, but then a few days ago, a much less conventional friend—in some ways—made the subject clear: “Don’t you have the least bit of jealousy?” I was so surprised by the question that I couldn’t think quite what to say, but a simple “No,” left her still looking quizzical. I wasn’t at a loss for words, thanks to a cup of espresso, but I don’t think I covered the issue very well.
In thinking about it later, I remembered that Eve, my wife, had asked me the same question, and when I answered, “No,” she said, “Damn! That’s too bad.” I think she was joking, but at any rate, we have talked about our relationship so much that I didn’t have to go into detail—she believed me. So why aren’t I jealous?
My first serious encounter with jealousy, which I’ve written about in the Journal, was in the seventh grade, and thanks to some fortuitous preparation by life, I came out of it pretty well. I realized that there’s no controlling someone else’s preferences, and if I care about their happiness, I’ll want them to get what they want, even if it’s not me. Any other reaction is selfish and unreasonable. I still had emotional reactions when I saw my desired girlfriend with someone else, but each time those arose, I went through the reasoning process again, and those reactions got less and less severe, until they became momentary.
Jealousy, anger, love, lust, and all the rest of our emotions, evolved because they conveyed some survival advantage to the genes of the animals that had them. Lions and tigers have emotions, too, but don’t seem to think about them very much, while the complexity of the human cognitive apparatus allows us to consider their origins and their effectiveness or appropriateness.
Our DNA provides the machinery of emotions, but with humans, culture complicates the situation. The cues for lust vary considerably from culture to culture, and the same is true for other emotions.
The more aware we are of how our emotions can be deliberately manipulated, the better we can become at monitoring and evaluating attempts at control. For example, I don’t expose myself to sexual stimuli unless the calendar says it’s time for prostate exercise, although the occasional innocent-looking email will slip up on me.
Most thinking adults would agree that monitoring media input is advised, given the general motivation of advertisers, politicians, and circulation editors, but when the subject becomes love and relationships, thinking often becomes much less critical. Tricycle magazine has a section on relationships, and the Summer, 2008, article by Barry Magid illustrates how much is taken for granted in this area.
Magid jumps from the interdependence and connectedness of everything—good science and good Buddhism—to the vulnerability we expose ourselves to in our relationships with others who are, basically, uncontrollable and unreliable. He discusses two strategies for dealing with this vulnerability—control and autonomy—and disallows both as ineffective: attempts at control create more anxiety than they prevent, and autonomy requires “repression or dissociation, a denial of feeling.”
My attempts at controlling other people have assuredly met with failure, but I think Magid’s dismissal of autonomy is premature. There’s an old Zen saying, “A patch-robed monk has nothing to cling to,” and while this sounds bleak at first reading, perhaps, it is in fact the lot of all creatures: security is always temporary, and loss and death are certain. “Life,” as the Buddha may have said, “is suffering,” either in the present moment or in anticipation. But there is a way to end suffering—and vulnerability—and all it takes is the ending of delusion: learning to accept life as it is, not life as fantasized.
The centuries-old charnel-ground meditation, in which we contemplate the rotting of our bodies, offers a way to familiarize us with the idea of death and its consequences. If we reflect on the science of emotions—biological and cultural—we can develop a similar familiarity with our conditioned responses that undermines identifying with them as “ours:” emotions are no more personal than the functioning of the liver or the heart.
Everything that we are—physical, emotional, intellectual—is the result of prior biological and social conditions. To identify with any of it as a possession of the self, or to take the responses of other people as under their control and a reflection of our value, is the result of not understanding the human condition.