Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resentment, and other fine feelings

The warm spring weather is back now, but winter returned for a couple of days earlier this week. It even snowed a little. The pretty dwarf larkspur, which is very plentiful here, has gone a little droopy and sad as a result, but the blooms have survived. Wildflowers are tough.

No matter how many times I remind myself that it’s absurd to resent the weather, I can’t stop feeling irritated when I have to haul the winter coat back out after I thought I had put it away for the season. It seems unfair to be given a taste of warmth and light, only to have them snatched away. I assume most people feel the same way, since everybody whines about the cold. It’s a craziness we all share, this grudge against nature. Sometimes I think peevishness was our principal reason for inventing God--not so we’d have an explanation for consciousness or what happens when we die, but so we could feel that someone is responsible for all the annoying glitches in earthly life. The faithful like to praise God for creating a beautiful world, but somewhere in the back of their minds they’re ranting at him about late freezes and fire ants.

The cold snap silenced the birdsong and the frogs went back to sleep. The squirrels stayed out, along with the deer, and I saw a quartet of turkeys marching single file through the trees on the morning it snowed. I wonder how they felt about the cold. I know they suffer from it, but do they ever resent it? Do they think the day should be warmer, or even conceive that it could be? It seems ridiculous to suggest that they might, but animals certainly make qualitative judgments about their environment. One of my dogs hates the wind. If you make her stay outside on a breezy day she gets very crabby and snaps at the other dogs. How is she different from me, when I get in a snit about the unseasonable chill?

Even after the thousands of studies of animal behavior, the emotional lives of animals are still opaque to us. We don’t know anything about their passions, about their interior experience of life. One morning before the temps dropped, I watched a mating triangle being worked out among downy woodpeckers. The trio flew from one tree to another, chasing and chattering with the intensity you always see in courtship rivalries. Even when the intruding male tried to retreat, the other two kept chasing him, not wanting to let go of the fight. It certainly looked as if they were feeling all the fury and anxiety humans feel in the same situation. I wonder if they were. And if they weren’t, I wonder what that says about us.

Photo of dwarf larkspur from Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide.

Photo of downy woodpecker from Wikimedia Commons.


jmcleod76 said...

When I catch myself complaining about the weather, I usually make a crack like "Just give me some weather, any weather, and I'll bitch about it!"

That's not entirely true, of course. I'm happiest when it sunny and anywhere between 55 and 75 degrees. Anything beyond that tiny window, though, sets the complaining mechanism in option. "I'm to hot, waa!" "Now I'm too cold!" Completely absurd.

I think a mark of maturity is recognizing that we have no one to blame for our discomfort. I'm not even saying one has to be a non-theist, exactly (I'm avoiding "atheist" here, because the athiest fundies who are so in vogue right now have me annoyed - my non-theism is bigger than that narrow ideology). Even if one believes in a god, there has to come a point of acknowedging that the he/she isn't up there arranging everything just to test and reward us, specifically. That is supreme arrogance. The world is as it is. It has nothing to do with our likes and dislikes.

BitterGrace said...

My comfort window is about as narrow as yours, J, although you need to bump it up about 10 degrees. Maybe 15. I'm pretty happy at 90, as long as I don't have to work in it.

I marvel at the persistence of my arrogance about nature. I mean, I've tried hard to jettison the ingrained notion that the world somehow exists for its relation to me (or humanity generally), but conscious acknowledgment of my unimportance seems to have little impact on my emotional response. That's the reason I ponder the experience of the animals.

jmcleod76 said...

Absolutely ... even after years of sitting so still that the edges of my body and consciousness blur into the atmosphere and the slats of my hardwood floor, I still get cranky as fuck when things don't go my way. In my best moments, though, I can laugh at it.

jmcleod76 said...

Oh, and ... as for the animals, I think that, insofar as our own irritation comes from a bodily response rather than from a mental story about "how things are supposed to be," animals probably feel the same thing. Possibly more so. Animals are more in tune with their bodily reactions to things than we usually are, and extreme weather is certainly stressful for them. They're programmed to react in certain ways, and not doing so could be a matter of life or death.

It's only when we pile on our "shoulds" that the separation happens. When I'm able to stop wishing the weather would be different, it doesn't make me less irritable, just less miserable. I don't know if those are the best words for what I mean, but one is an emotion or bodily state and the other is a qualitative judgement about that emotion or physical state.

BitterGrace said...

" is an emotion or bodily state and the other is a qualitative judgment about that emotion or physical state.

I think that says it very clearly. I wonder, though, if it is possible to draw a bright line, or even a fuzzy one, between the two. It seems like more of a continuum to me, both in experience and expression. I guess I'm wondering how much of our "judgment" is as programmed as our physical response. Maybe our judgment of the environment is as instinctive and adaptive as anything the rest of the animal world does.

Margaret said...

I think our tendency toward resentment at unseasonable weather is somehow tied to our insistence on attempting to project from past truths to the future, to experience the world as somehow sensible and within our grasp. It's not so much that the weather this week has been unpleasant, as that its unpleasantness belongs, in our mind, to another season. It's the same reason we resent illness in part simply because we're feeling bad and in part as a much more complicated violation of our expectation to feel good. We expect spring to be warm, we expect our bodies to function without pain, we expect our fellow drivers to stay in their own lanes and signal before they turn-- despite all evidence that variations on these norms are perfectly common. This may be where Plato got his ideas about the ideal forms.

BitterGrace said...

I think you're right, Margaret. This is sort of an epistemological problem. We carry around an idea of what spring should be, or how we should feel--and when experience violates our concept, we're not just uncomfortable, but also disoriented and anxious. What looks like anger is fear in disguise.

I suppose if Plato, Kant, et al. are right, there's no escaping the problem--but I still wonder what's adaptive about being wired this way. I mean, I see what's useful about having a brain that invests in ideal concepts, but the accompanying inflexibility seems to carry a high price.