Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 3): The Unorthodox GiftShare
Some people don't talk about emotion. Instead, they show it.
When I think of emotions and emotional expression – I can't help but think of my stepfather. Although he was often a difficult man to read, there's no one in my life who's taught me more about diversity in emotional expression.
He was a brilliant man – and loved to talk about intellectually challenging subjects. His most favorite subject was that on which he'd built his career: computers. Dinner conversations around our house were often stimulating...but it wasn't hard to notice its dissimilarity to your Ozzie and Harriet style home life.
Outside of these typical topics, his social repertoire showed distinct gaps. Gruff and opinionated, he'd sometimes forget the niceties. The few visitors I brought over often heard little more than "Hello."
When it came to the more personal things – his deeper emotions – he was frequently silent. I can recall hearing the words "I love you" from him twice, in all the time I knew him. But I never doubted that he was proud of me...it was clear through our conversations, how he treated my opinions and thoughts with respect.
Ironically, although he didn't speak much of his own emotions, he was the person who could often help me decode mine. One evening when I was about 10, he and I sat at the dining room table, while my mother did dishes nearby in the kitchen.
I was quiet – I was struggling with something. I sometimes had trouble with understanding my own inner world. Feelings would develop, and I'd be unable to decode them. When this happened, I found it very unsettling, and I would spend a great deal of time and energy trying to work it out.
We had a habit of being frank in our house, so as we all conversed I laid out my issue: "I feel weird." I said. "I feel kinda good... but there's this other feeling... almost like...a pain...here." I gestured to the general region of my heart. "Does that make sense?" I asked.
"Yes," my stepfather said, "I know exactly what you're talking about...there's a word for it. It's called 'bittersweet.'" He enunciated the word. "It means you are happy about something, but sad about it at the same time."
In context, this made sense – it was the end of a long summer visit with my mother, and I was due to return to my father's house in the morning. I was happy to see my dad, but sad to leave my mother. Pleased to have a label for the feeling that had so troubled me, I smiled and repeated the word: "Bittersweet."
I remember this moment, not only because it was a rare moment of connection with my stepfather, but because this interaction completely revolutionized my understanding of emotion. Prior to this, I likely would not have believed that such a feeling as "bittersweet" could exist. I thought of emotion in a very black and white way. Happiness and sadness were opposites -- how could they coexist?
This incident proved to me that there was much more to this business of emotion than I had previously thought. My curiosity was piqued in a way I'm not sure it has been before or since. This curiosity would blossom into a wider interest in psychology, which is still with me today.
Such moments with my stepfather showed those of us close to him the depth that was present beneath a surface that was often misjudged. It was a depth that only a select few outside the family were privileged to see.
My mother was fond of throwing small, intimate dinner parties. When she did, she often stacked the deck with work colleagues – people whom she knew would share common interests with my stepfather, and who would be as happy as he was to "talk shop."
One specific couple was a staple at these little get-togethers. The husband had been a colleague of my stepfather's for many years. Both he and his wife seemed to have been gifted with an extra helping of empathy for those whom others often ostracized.
As a family, we became especially close with this couple. My mother loved to talk, and go shopping with the wife, and my stepfather and the husband would ride motorcycles together on the weekends (until my stepfather was sidelined in an accident).
When I was in high school, the wife called my mother – she was planning a big birthday bash for her husband, and she wanted us to come. We all looked forward to it, but no one more than my stepfather.
He didn't talk much about it – but for weeks, he set aside his normal evening routine. Usually, he spent every evening after dinner sitting silently at the dining room table, working crossword puzzles and cryptics until it was time to go to bed. Now, night after night, he spent those hours usually spent relaxing working on his friend's birthday gift.
Perhaps self-conscious about the nature of his gift, when the day came he asked if he could present it in private – with just spouses and family. With typical sensitivity, his friend agreed readily.
As we watched him open the present – my stepfather was, once again, silent. My mother stepped in, commenting on how hard he had worked to make the gift. Once the gift was unwrapped, it was the friend's turn to be silent.
After a few moments, he said, "You made this?" And dropped into silence again...looking down at the gift in his hands.
There, nicely framed, was a large replica of the Harley Davidson logo – perfectly worked in cross-stitch. It was an unusual hobby my stepfather had picked up as an attempt to cope with constant stress and anxiety. The result had awed my mother and I, devoted crafters.
But even for someone not familiar with the art of needlework, like my stepfather's friend, it was still impossible to miss the time and care that went into the tiny, intricate stitches. It was a masterpiece.
When the friend finally spoke again, to express his thanks, his voice seemed to crack with emotion. Tears sprung to my eyes. Afraid that I was reading more into what I heard than what was there, I looked up at the faces around me, and saw an answering moisture in the eyes of everyone in that room.
Years of knowing this sometimes difficult, often taciturn man had taught us all the true significance of that unorthodox gift: He might not talk about emotion, but he definitely knew how to show it.
Read Part 2 of this series here.