I’m suspicious of emotions. Always have been. Seems to me they’re more likely to make you say the wrong thing, date the wrong guy, or believe the wrong idea than they are to bring you joy, give you peace, or improve you in any way. The downside of anger, jealousy, and distress vastly outweighs the upside of joy, contentment, and compassion.
At least I’ve always thought so. I’ve discovered, though, by asking friends a rather peculiar question, that I’m probably in the minority. Here’s the question: If you could trade half your emotional amplitude (that is, feel everything, good and bad, at half the intensity) for ten IQ points, would you do it? And no quibbling about what IQ points really mean. The question is whether you’d trade emotional intensity to be just a little smarter.
I would, in a heartbeat. Not without regret, of course; I’d lose some important pleasures. But half the anger! Half the envy! Half the anguish, anxiety, and distress!
I think it’s probably a win before you even get to fear. And fear, in my book, is the worst emotion going.
Not that I’ve known much of it. I’ve lived a lucky life. I was born into a middle-class American family, and never knew want or threat. Up until the last few years, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I experienced actual, genuine fear. There was an unfortunate incident involving a capsized canoe and a fifteen-foot dam, back when I was in college. There was 9/11, when I stood with Kevin in a doorway and hoped the south tower didn’t fall on us. There was the day I was diagnosed with an incurable, and potentially lethal, heart disease.
But that’s the worst of it. All in all, my life has been safe and uneventful. Until we bought a boat.
The water scares me. Given that water can kill you, that’s not so unreasonable. But it scares me more than it should. It never did, when I was a kid. I grew up swimming, and spent as much time in the water as out of it when my family vacationed on Cape Cod. But, after that canoe incident, I was never quite the same. I still enjoy the water, but my threshold for dangerous conditions is lower than it ought to be.
Between oyster farming and fishing, Kevin and I spend a lot of time on the water, and I have had, more times than I would have liked, to try and deal constructively with fear. Fear, though, has a way of defying your efforts to deal with it constructively.
Yesterday, we were out on the oyster grant, and we made a mistake. Conditions were bad – almost, but not quite, bad enough to keep us at home. It was very windy, out of the south. The tide was at its lowest about an hour and a half before sunset. It was raining. But the temperature was in the 50s, and we wanted to take advantage of the relative warmth to finish buttoning the farm up for the season. We had to consolidate the oysters we were planning to leave out for the winter, and bring in the empty trays.
When we got out there, we saw that there was ice damage from a cold snap the week before. Some trays had been tossed around, and the two big, raised baskets we use for what we cull to sell – the gifted and talented, my stepson calls them – were missing. We anchored the boat and got out to survey the damage.
The mistake was where we put the boat.
Our farm is on a sand bar that’s intertidal – dry at low tide, covered with about 8 feet of water at high tide. Abutting it is a channel that doesn’t go dry, and that’s how we get out there. We leave the boat in the channel, do our work, and then get back in the boat to go home. But if we get out there early, everything’s still wet, and we can leave the boat on the edge of the farm while the tide is still going out. The water flows out from under it, and it’s grounded until the tide comes back in.
We often do this deliberately. If we’re going to be moving oysters or equipment to or from the boat, it’s helpful to have it as close as possible to where the oysters and equipment are, or need to be. And, even if we don’t need the boat to be close, if we’re going to be out there for the entire tide, we don’t have to worry about whether the boat grounds because we’re there for the duration, regardless.
If, however, it’s important to leave before the water comes back (because it’s getting dark, or bad weather’s coming), we have to be careful not to ground the boat. If the wind’s out of the north, it’s not a problem, since the boat gets blown into the channel from where we anchor it. If, however, the wind is out of the south, the boat gets blown into the shallows.
Yesterday, we knew the water wouldn’t be back before sunset, and we should have left the boat a good twenty yards away from the edge of the farm. But the gifted and talented baskets had been the closest to the channel of all our equipment. Since they were gone, and we had already taken in the rows of trays closest to them, we had no frame of reference for where we ought to put the boat. And we put it too close in.
Dead low was at 3:00. Sunset was at 4:30. Under normal conditions, that wouldn’t have been a problem, even though the boat was high and dry. The water does come back, and we should have been floating an hour and a half after low. But a fierce wind out of the south can slow the tide, and it was clearly behind schedule.
The actual danger was minimal. We had a phone, and a GPS. We were wearing appropriate gear – neoprene waders and float coats. It was windy and raining, but it wasn’t cold. Although there was fog and it was getting dark, and those things can make it really hard to get home, the most serious threat out there on the farm is if the boat gets away from you. If there’s an upside to grounding your boat, it’s that it can’t get away from you. The worst-case scenario was an engine that wouldn’t start, in which case we’d either anchor or let ourselves be carried, by wind and incoming tide, on to Sandy Neck, the barrier beach between the harbor and Cape Cod Bay, and call for help.
But you can’t talk sense to fear, and I was afraid. Partly, it was the conditions. Mostly, though, it was because we were the only people out there, a sure sign that we shouldn’t have been. I lifted trays and dumped oysters with a knot it my gut. I was scared, but I was also angry because we had made such a stupid mistake.
Kevin was fine.
It’s hard to deal constructively with fear because you try to do it, inevitably, WHEN YOU’RE AFRAID. I wanted my fear to be commensurate to the circumstances, but I couldn’t make it conform. I wanted to be cheerful, and to make the best of it, and to avoid making Kevin feel bad because I was afraid. But I was afraid. And you’re not at your best when you’re afraid.
The water, as it always does, came in. When the boat floated, we had just enough light to navigate in, without incident.
Kevin knows about me and water. He knows when I am afraid. He also knows that being out on a boat, fishing, with him, is one of my greatest pleasures. He knows the satisfaction I take in our farm and the physical work we put into it. He knows there are conditions in which he is comfortable and I am not. And, in those conditions, he is always ready to stop, ready to turn around, ready to go home – assuming the boat is floating.
When I am afraid, and unreasonable, it comes home to me that my well-being is as important to Kevin as his own. We’ve been together for thirteen years, and I still find it remarkable to be cared for in that way. It makes good things better and bad things bearable. It puts solid ground under my feet, and makes me feel as though I’m operating from a position of strength.
Maybe, just maybe, it does that for Kevin as well. So, while I could do without the fear, and the envy, and the distress, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to trade away my emotional amplitude. It’s probably better that nobody’s actually giving me the chance.