Dear Daddy —
I wrote this entry in a time of turmoil. Your house was suddenly ours. Mother was still in the nursing home. My employer was still settling into a new office building and adjusting to a new leader. There were frustrating family issues. As I publish this, a good friend is in the hospital, dying, there are still work frustrations and family frustrations. There are still bills that I’m trying to figure out how to pay. In all of this, a friend of mine wrote today, it might be best to “go full Vulcan.” That is, to turn off our feelings, like Mr. Spock could on Star Trek, and just make all the right intellectual choices. I think you would have considered that an attractive option. Well I wrote this response to you seven months ago, and I still think it stands.
February 20th, 2019
I remember you, red in the face, angry at me about something, demanding “What’s so damned wonderful about having feelings?” I was probably 15 or so. I didn’t know what to say at the time. Now I do.
You see, my dear physicist father, feelings are part of the human operating system. The human being is an amazing feat of hardware, firmware and software engineering. As a computer scientist, I can now explain to you that the O.S., the platform which allows the user to interact with the computer without actually having to know Machine Language or Assembler code, must be able to process its environment with great efficiency. On a laptop, it has to know the CPU speed, the amount of RAM, the size of the hard drive and how it interfaces with the CPU, the type of display adapter, the type of monitor… the list goes on. The human operating system has to know the same about the human body. And the fact is that, like the laptop, we don’t know a hell of a lot about our own hardware. Storing our schematics and shop manual in our permanents would, we must assume, take up a lot of the hard drive space in our brains that we call long term memory. Therefore, our O.S. needs a mechanism for telling us when things are right, when they’re wrong, when we need to take action.
So our O.S. contains a module called fear. “This situation you have stumbled into is dangerous! Run! Or perhaps fight. There’s a related routine called the fight-or-flight instinct that chooses which, not always well.
It contains a module called anger. “This situation is rife with bad consequences for you. Someone is trying to take what’s yours or harm your family’s interests. You need to stand up and act!” I guess this one, too, ties into fight-or-flight.
And then there’s love. “This person can help you further the race.” “This person needs you to nurture and protect them.” “This person can help you accomplish your goals.”
Those are the three basic modules psychology says we have. If that’s true, then their various permutations and combinations also give us ambition, sadness, hate, greed, lust, jealousy, and many others.
Without these modules, we would sit on our setters (your word. I’d say “asses”) and do nothing. We would not procreate. We would not build. We would not invent. We would not hide from predators or come in out of the rain. These modules keep us alive, moving forward, and make life worth living.
And that, dear scientist, is what’s so damned wonderful about having feelings.
Feel free to argue the point. I’ll be right here.