The gospel of unfeeling
Anger is a dangerous emotion. That’s what my mother taught me. She says it’s a fire that destroys everything around it before it destroys itself.
I remember her saying this to me each time I started fuming over something — bullies, low grades, my absent father, the way she treated her best friend and my sister with more affection than me, or anything I felt I didn’t deserve. I always gave a piece of my mind. Our neighbors and the adults in church thought I was dangerous. A wolf in sheep’s clothing and all that. They warned their children to stay away from me. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t afraid to bite.
Until I did. Depression. You know how it goes. Everything I thought about myself was flipped on its head. My mom told me I had no reason to be “sad.” I studied in private schools for most of my primary and secondary education. We lived in a cozy two-story in an overcrowded subdivision in Calamba. We weren’t starving. What reason did I have to have depression?
I used to feel deeply about a lot of things. I easily fawned over fictional characters I read from novels. I died laughing at every episode of a “SpongeBob SquarePants” marathon on Nickelodeon. I sang my heart out. I developed huge crushes easily and stuck to it for a long time. I cried whenever my mom would leave the country, or I needed to leave my friends upon transferring to a new school again and again.
And that was the problem, I was told.
I needed to detach myself from emotion, she told me, for it wasn’t a good master. That was what she believed the main problem with me was. I was a landmine.
My reaction to situations was something I could control, she said. Especially because I’m a guy. Men shouldn’t be so emotional. “Be strong,” she told me every time I wore my heart on my sleeve. By which she meant: Feel less, if not nothing.
I understood where she was coming from. She’s a mother to three children, technically not yet a single mother but might as well have been, the way her husband treated her. And even before that, when she was younger, she had to work at 15, compromise her education for a while, snag a man she didn’t love and 10 years her senior in order to finish her studies. She hustled and she hustled fiercely, even when she got knocked up at 20, married at 21, and lost the baby due to miscarriage a few months after.
Given her various resources, there simply was no room in the inn for feeling things. I, her eldest son, was her disciple, and this was her gospel.
Until, that is, it wasn’t anymore.
Until she lost her girlfriend to ovarian cancer and got back with her husband, her three children in tow on a plane to a faraway desertland. She held on to her grief, then to her anger, then to the imaginary spark of hope that one day she would be able to truly love the strange man in bed beside her.
Now she preaches of love, of joy, of times for sorrow and anger and connection. She is emotionally more feminine now, unhindered by the masculine rationality that shaped her survival in an unrelenting society.
Now she speaks in a language I don’t comprehend anymore. I want to understand her, the way I’m sure my softer, younger self could, if he still existed today.
My mother has finally turned human, and I want to feel happy for her, but I can’t. It’s not that I harbor resentment toward her. I don’t feel sad, either. I just simply don’t feel. She taught me not to.
I want to say I miss fawning over the girls and boys I have crushes on or bawling my eyes out over dead characters or laughing at SpongeBob or singing in front of people again. But before I can, I must first learn again how to miss, and how to want, and how to wear my heart on my sleeve. But how do you unlearn this kind of unlearning?
When your skin has turned to granite and your heart rings hollow, where exactly does all the passion go, that which once huddled around a warm, nurturing hearth?
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Gershom, 22, a communication arts student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, just wants to raise his siblings to be less messed up than him.
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