COLUMN: Containing opposites

By Karin Schimke

Emotional intelligence is a rare thing to come across and a delicate thing to explain. A first check point in assessing emotional intelligence is often checking in with where you place responsibility for your feelings. If it’s with outside sources – your boss, your ancestors, your partner, your fate, the place where find yourself, your income – then you have still have some learning to do.

You also have to be willing to feel your feelings: not suppress them or hide from them. Not bat them away using your razor-sharp intellect, nor employ any of the other enormous number of defenses – including passive or active aggression, an unquestioned surrender to substances, or the donning of the martyr’s cloak.

Emotionally intelligent people are skillful in communicating their feelings appropriately at appropriate times and are able to express themselves positively without resorting to aggression or sulking.

But perhaps the highest achievement of emotional intelligence is the ability to entertain opposites. No one is wholly good, completely evil, absolutely lovely, entirely obnoxious, all the time, throughout their lives. When we are able to see that we – and every other human being – can be both generous and greedy, gentle and harsh, lazy and diligent, cheerful and despairing, and are able to bear these contradictions with grace, then we’re psychologically grown-up.

Fiction is often seen as a source for developing emotional intelligence, a view I support for instinctive, rather than scientific reasons.

The book I read this month dealt overtly with containing opposites – and with the difficulty of acquiring emotional intelligence.

Rosarium_Philosophorum_(1550)The Chymical Wedding, by Lindsay Clarke is dense, complex and brilliant, while also being suspenseful and entertaining.

One of the abiding themes is “marriage”, not just in the common traditional understanding of a formal bond between one man and one woman, but the marriage of all opposites. The first wedding must take place inside the individual: each must accept that he or she contains also his or her opposite gender. One of the characters says to another: “We’re trying Laura – me, Edward, all of us…But the old ways of being male…they don’t work any more. The meaning’s drained from them. And there are no easy options, so we have to use our minds. It’s a precious thing this capacity for thought. We have to use it.”

Laura answers: “To the exclusion of everything else?”

The mind is only one half of the quest for understanding. The other half is contained in the heart.

I mention all of this also because I believe that if the two journalists who earlier this month made jokes about corrective rape – and then were nonplussed by the public outrage that followed – were more emotionally whole and mature, they would have spared our country a whole lot of pain. Instead they highlighted how emotionally stunted in our development we – South Africans – really are.

The journalists were dismissed. They offered what can only be read as a non-apology, their indignation more than their contrition clearly apparent.

Their defenders reared up like a single monsterous pustule spewing hate and hellfire.

If only they, and their defenders, could see that rape was not a woman’s problem, but a problem of humanity; if they were able to recognize their own vulnerabilities, acknowledge that they contain in themselves contradictory multitudes – including the female psyche – then they would not have ridden roughshod over other people’s pain, but would be able to see rape as the affront it is not just to women, but also to men.

If each of us could allow ourselves to feel our own feelings, we’d be better able to imagine those of others. If all of us were a little more emotionally intelligent and could marry the good and bad within ourselves instead of placing blame elsewhere, and if there were more internal weddings of our own conflicts, then we’d be a little closer to the kind of world we all would like to live in.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in July 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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