Malfunctioning in a Functional World

Trigger warning: mention of mental illness

Imagine yourself in another time: you live in a cottage in the countryside, your day consists of feeding the chickens, farming, maybe a little reading and sometimes your friend from a nearby village visits for a conversation. Hold this picture for a second and think about what we, in the 21st century, are confronted with every day—the heaps of information, images and videos technology allow us to consume on a daily basis. The stimuli our minds now have to process in one day are sometimes as much as a person living in earlier times processed throughout their whole lives. The contemporary world is a fast paced machine, human operation functioning as its gasoline. 6:30, rings the alarm, hit snooze, oh there’s the news, a quick banana maybe some coffee too, time to leave, so much to do, hateful words when you open Twitter, confronting images, it’s hard not to get bitter. Our emotions are forced to keep up with this stride, which is all about functioning, and in this paradigm, there is no room for malfunctioning. Yet, we are never taught how we are supposed to manage our emotions either, and what place they occupy within this paradigm.

Looking back at my school years I remember learning about many things. Math, languages, history, geography, all of these things were supposed to prepare us for the outside world. In order to understand these subjects we spent years in school and even after that it would take a lifetime to truly master even a single one of these subjects. After finishing your math studies, for example, you are expected to know what the square root of a certain number is. Before taking math classes you had no idea what a square root even was, but now after years of studying you do (or still don’t, like me). We would never ask someone to understand math without any previous studies. Isn’t it strange then how society expects us to master and understand our emotions without a single year of basic study or exercise? After my high school studies I have never applied a mathematical formula again, but I do still cry.

As much as I wish this could be solved with an ‘Emotions 101’, emotions can’t be taught. While we do learn about our brains in biology, emotions are tumultuous and personal and no one perceives them the same. In biology we learn to label the human body, we learn about its functionality. But emotions are harder to label, harder to predict. They can’t be tested and they don’t always function like they’re supposed to. So we skip over the label ‘brain’ in a single chapter of our course books and move on with our lives. I think this is especially alarming because the 21st century human is faced with many more stimuli and triggers than the humans that came before us. It’s hard to not be consumed by the modern world, to become a mere member of a big machine instead of a living, breathing person with feelings. Our fast-changing world makes emotions even more unpredictable and can have many effects on our wellbeing. But despite the fact that emotions cannot be taught and that our brains are being asked to process more and more, we are still expected to control them.

It’s hard to not be consumed by the modern world, to become a mere member of a big machine instead of a living, breathing person with feelings.

Personally, I think society’s dismissal of spending time to understand the development of our emotions is a result of always coming in second after capitalism. Or worse: in the hierarchy of imperatives of our society, emotions reside somewhere at the bottom. Sunken to the depths of the swimming pool, stuffed in a chest filled with some rocks, preferably covered by liters of water for eternity. Emotions cannot be controlled, and a lack of control is scary in a world built around exactly that. It’s easy to dump something you can’t control down the deep end, but things resurface, bubble up or refuse to sink. It is only then, when emotions can no longer be hidden, that people start questioning the handling of them.

In the hierarchy of imperatives of our society, emotions reside somewhere at the bottom.

Learning how to master emotions is usually something which only comes in when someone’s emotions deviate from normative expectations. Not everyone’s emotions and bodies function the same. And, even though you are the owner of your brain, your brain is the owner of your emotions, controlling the way your body reacts to things. Our brains cannot only work for and with us, sometimes they work against us. Such can be the case with mental illness. So when someone’s brain does not cooperate with the normative expectations of the functioning of emotions, people get confused. It is only then people attempt to explain how these emotions should ‘really’ function. But how can we teach someone to swim, when they’re already drowning?

The stigma which engulfs mental illness like a thick mist, makes it hard to see what’s really happening. One of the people I care about the most in the world was lost in this fog, and while their shape was still visible, no one really saw them, surrounded by misunderstandings about the functioning of our brains and emotions. I remember the remarks in the hallways: “Did you hear? They’re depressed, LOL. We all have bad times, just get over yourself.”, or, “It’s not something to use as an excuse. They should still attend classes and pay attention.” The judging stares, the people that failed them. The fear surrounding it all, as if it’s a virus they were in danger of catching. We tiptoe around mental illness like it’s broken glass, something sharp we do not want to step into. Something with the ability to make us bleed, reminding us of our vulnerability. And the fog surrounding it all? We simply use that as an excuse not to see.

Years later I saw someone else I love become invisible in this same mist. It destroyed them. This article is an ode to this person, and the conversations we had about this subject. If our brains, the way emotions function in it and the optional ‘malfunctions’ of it were treated with the same level of importance as for example the subject of math, perhaps the world would be more understanding, more helpful. Within a world so focused on operation it’s hard to remember that human beings do not always function by the book. We are not automatons with a guide you can pull out whenever someone’s not functioning accordingly to track down the problem and solve it. However, I do think that opening up the conversation and questioning how emotions as a whole are disregarded in our everyday life is a step in the right direction. Perhaps if we dedicated more time and space in our society to address these topics and listen to each other, signs would be recognized earlier, people could help others keep their footing before they are forced to the ground. I know it’s scary to step into the mist, but all we really have to do is turn on our fog lights, even if that only allows us to see a couple meters more. That way, we can reach our destination gradually and leave the fog surrounding us, so we can all see.

Picture by: Philippe Ramette


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