Thursday, September 18, 2014

Embracing the Irrational

Be honest, what preoccupies you more when hiking – a fear of bear attacks and snake bites, or a fear of hypothermia and drowning? I know I’m much more fearful of serpent strikes than moving water and a hell of a lot more scared of a bear's fanged jaws than cold temperatures. The truth, however, is that, statistically speaking, drowning and hypothermia are dramatically more likely to befall me in the areas I hike than are any dangerous wildlife encounters. I know this in my rational mind, but fear is an emotion, not a rational conclusion. Lately, events in my life have been forcing me to come to terms with the limits of reason and rationality.

In one of my liberal arts classes, I encountered the idea that our culture’s privileging of reason over emotion is nothing more than a construct, and a false one at that. Even as I write this now, I can’t help but feel, “Of course, reason is superior to emotion. Emotion is unreliable and irrational. Reason is what keeps us in line and makes us specifically human.” Is this true, however? The argument I read against this hierarchy was part of a feminist critique explaining the relationship as a byproduct of a patriarchal culture that insists the “male” sense of rational thought is more evolved than the “feminine” frivolity of emotion. While I won’t even attempt to address how sex and gender apply, I will say that the idea that reason trumps emotion is reductive bullshit. Well, I should clarify that what is ridiculous is the idea that these two hemispheres of human thought are in opposition to and should be measured against one another. Neither is especially interesting or fruitful without the other.

Let’s explore another idea – the photograph. The photograph is perhaps the most “rational” work of art; a document of reality; a work of science, even. It is “denotative” rather than “connotative.” Such qualities are great for photocopies or insurance claims. When trying to create inspiring landscape or nature photography, however, these qualities only take us so far. How often have you taken a photograph of a beautiful area, one that swept you away by its beauty and aura, only to find a stale and sterile image on your computer screen once you return home? I know I feel this way about MANY of my photographs before editing them. These raw, unprocessed photographs, even when carefully and “artfully” composed as best I can muster, often lack the emotional import of the scene. They are an accurate and “rational” representation of what my eye saw, but they do not capture what I experienced, what my "mind" witnessed, and the emotional veracity of the moment. They may be accurate, but they don’t actually feel true. In my case, I manipulate them by saturating colors, tweaking the contrast between light and dark tones, combining multiple exposures, and, in short, injecting them with emotion to bring them to life. My rational mind knows this tweaked image is not exactly “true,” but my emotional self feels it becomes a more honest expression of what I experienced. In short, reason is limited and even facile without emotion. I wouldn’t call that a “superior” position.

I bring this all up because lately my personal life has forced me to realize my rational mind is often powerless over my emotions no matter how much I might wish otherwise. Rationally, thoughts of a quickly dropping thermometer or rushing water currents should keep me awake at night before backpacking trips because they are the most dangerous situations I might encounter, but they don't. Instead, grim fantasies of encountering an aggressive water moccasin in a creek bed or a defensive bear protecting its cubs along a trail bend are what preoccupy my mind before trips and even while in the backcountry sometimes. That is because the idea of an animal attack is so tied to my emotions, the supposedly frivolous part of my mind. These are the very same emotions, however, that inspire me to hike many miles to see a beautiful mountain overlook or a cascading waterfall, and they are also the same emotions that inspire me to create the best photograph I can (and to “fib” a bit in Photoshop after the fact.) My trying to force reason and rationality to dominate the irrationality of emotion is not only futile, but foolish. Despite knowing this, I still often feel the pressure to do so - to conquer emotion with reason. I need to remind myself that the relationship between them, including the tension, is what makes for a full, rich, and holistic experience of life. So, call me crazy… That's at least half correct, and for the better.

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