Spock (Leonard Nimoy) was one of my earliest fascinations. I loved his pointy ears and his arched eyebrow and how he refused to let his emotions factor into his decisions. I loved his dynamic with Dr. McCoy. I taught myself how to raise one eyebrow because of Spock.
I loved Data, too, in spite of his lack of pointy ears and singular raised eyebrow. Pedantic digression into facts that most other people found boring was something that resonated on a personal level, as was his inability to be quite the same as everyone else even as he wanted to understand and share their experiences.
The former can experience emotions but doesn’t want to, the latter can’t experience emotions and wants to. These two extremes represent my personal experiences in many ways. As a child, raised in fundamental evangelical Christianity, I was taught to view my emotions as dangerous, at best. Emotions were the gateway to evil. Desire was the most dangerous emotion of all.
Not sexual desire, specifically, though it was certainly up there on the list of bad desires. Any desire I had that wasn’t on the list of godly desires was suspect because that desire came from my heart, and my heart was unspeakably evil according to Christian doctrine and Biblical texts. Anything I wanted was suspect and must be viewed with suspicion as arising from selfishness.
This made a Vulcan-like existence an ideal to strive for. Ignore my heart, ignore my emotions, restrain my desires. Make decisions with my head, not my heart.
Years of trying to practice life on Vulcan terms wrecked me. Emotions are a part of my existence. They’re supposed to be a healthy part of my existence and a major factor in my quality of life and ability to enjoy this journey we call life. I chose a life I hated because for me, it was logical to ignore my desires and rational to repress my emotions. I could control them and eventually grow to appreciate the life I’d chosen if I just kept trying.
I love robots, androids, cyborgs, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. I talk about them a lot. There’s very little fear associated with these concepts for me. As long as it involved technology that let me keep my personality, intellect and emotions intact, I’d be happy to trade this meat suit for a robot body.
The other day I’d digressed into another discussion on the subject when I had a revelation: the reason Data is so rare in our portrayal of sentient machine life is because we believe emotions are irrational and illogical and ultimately unnecessary to existence. We believe machines would not see the value in human emotion as a rational and beneficial part of existence and so machines would make decisions based on cold hard logic and there would be no reason for them to value our existence and our quality of life.
Encapsulated in this mindset is the very reason emotions are a logical and necessary part of existence. We may not be consciously aware but on a deep level we understand.
Emotions are why we care. Emotions are why our existence is about more than mere survival. Emotions are why we try to work together and why we seek to change the everyday details of our existence for the benefit of everyone. Emotions are a tool and as a tool they can do damage when used incorrectly or wielded by someone that has no idea what they’re doing or what goal they’re trying to achieve. But in the hands of people that know what their goal is emotions are an incredibly potent force that can change the world.
Emotions are an integral part of our existence as a cooperative species. Emotions may spur us to make selfish decisions but they also spur us to make unselfish decisions. Emotions are why we form a human chain to rescue a drowning dog. They’re why we build systems of government based on the notion that individual input is valuable and that one person shouldn’t get to decide what life looks like for everyone else. Without our complicated, complex emotional life we would live focused entirely on day to day survival. We have to have desire to want an existence that goes beyond survival.
Data is one of the few examples I can think of in which sentient machine life is shown to value emotions and treat them as a positive aspect of being alive and aware – an experience to seek out. My desire to mimic the Vulcan approach to life receded when I realized that the reason I was taught to suppress my desires and make decisions with my head, not my heart, was because my head could be indoctrinated more easily than my heart. It was easier to control me if I believed my own desires were worthless and dangerous and must be repressed in favor of service to God.
My head can be filled with false ‘facts’ that make my decisions seem logical and rational even if they are anything but. My heart is the one that feels the pain of being forced into an existence that is at odds with my desires and inimical to my happiness. My heart is the one that feels injustice and struggles with the question of whether something is good or bad, harmful or beneficial. My heart is the one that cares.
Many years of depression and effort to suppress and repress my emotions have taken their toll. On March 30th, 2015, I felt happy and relaxed and realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt happy. Happiness was so rare that a date on which I felt happy became seared in my memory. There wasn’t another moment like it that whole year.
In January 2016, the depression lifted and I felt like myself again for 6 months. I couldn’t quite feel relaxed and happy but at the same time I wasn’t feeling unhappy all the time and it was such a relief. I could still remember what happiness felt like. I could pull a childhood memory into my mind and feel an echo of the happiness associated with the memory.
After those 6 months, I experienced another 2 years of severe depression and when it finally lifted I found I couldn’t really remember what happiness felt like. Thinking of childhood memories from before the first time I experienced depression no longer brought echoes of the emotion I felt at the time. There was just a curious absence as if something had fallen out and left a hole. I’m trying to be kind to my brain and let it heal because I’d like to find that piece that fell out and put it back.
Depression doesn’t manifest the same way for me as it does for a lot of people. For me, depression means feeling unhappiness and despair on such a deep level that it runs like a river underneath everything I do. I can find something funny and laugh but underneath the laugh I’m still feeling despair. Only a couple of times in my life have I experienced another symptom of depression that is apparently common – the absence of emotion.
Nothing makes you realize what emotion does for you quite like having emotion disappear almost entirely. I am a writer. My craft is fueled by emotion. In order to present characters and situations that resonate with a reader I have to understand emotions and how the situation might make the character feel. I have to understand the concept of desire to give my characters goals and inform their choices and make them care. There is nothing quite like approaching a scene that was planned to be intensely emotional only to realize I no longer had any idea what emotions felt like – any of them, except a very mild irritation over their absence.
My ability to feel emotions returned after an hour or so, and with it an increased appreciation for feeling any emotion at all. I’d rather feel the river of despair than nothing at all.
Emotions are our salt and our spice. They give our life flavor and let us savor the moments of happiness and beauty that come our way. Emotions are why I remember storm-dark clouds and a rain-washed highway and a double rainbow in the sky. My dad pulled the car over so we could all get out and marvel over this image that was so beautiful it seemed miraculous. Emotions are why I want to be an active participant rather than passive recipient.
Emotions are why I find the universe and existence fascinating.