In this rapidly moving informational age that we live in, “scientism,” the view that the most worthwhile knowledge comes from scientifically based studies, has largely become the rule of thumb. Concrete evidence, statistical data, experiments, polling samples, and other such analytical tools drive most of us in our every day decision-making.
That which seems to be more and more on the back-burner, however, is the idea advocated by thinkers, artists, and writers, that for becoming “whole” as a human being, we need to impart significant attention to discovering our emotional essence, the “kernel” of our being, otherwise referred to as “emotional truth.” This essence, it is said, can be discovered from experiencing the depths of great literature, fine arts, music, performing arts, and film; through these mediums we can discover our own emotional essence, the argument goes.
Sample quotes that capture the idea of emotional truth follow:
- “Emotional truth is about conveying the essence of an issue through a story, a picture, an anecdote, or some other means that engage other people’s empathy, and persuade them about the moral rightness of a particular issue.”
- “Emotional truth is a “heartfelt connection that arises between reader and character or characters through the unfolding (and possibly the resolution) of a … narrated conflict…. Readers feel the joy, sorrow, love and hate that the characters feels. This truth arises through a combination of immersions in details, setting, actions, dialogue, inner monologues….Without emotional truth, a key purpose of great literature, empathy, is hard to conceive…..Great and enduring works of literature …have an emotional truth, a core emotional experience that transcends the time and place in which they were written.”
- Emotional truth is “primal” and “visceral.”
- Emotional truth is the “undercurrent of facts.”
- Emotional truth is about “hitting that nerve that has the power to reverberate intensely with viewers.”
- “Enduring stories have a core emotional experience that transcends any period of time.” These stories are timeless in that “they contain emotional truths of life.”
- Emotional truth “reveals something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”
Simplistically speaking, all of the above comes down to connecting through core emotional experiences and gaining greater empathy and understanding of the world and ourselves through the depth of these experiences.
To more fully comprehend the realm of emotional truth, here are some examples of the visceral, heartfelt connection that arises between reader/audience and character or characters through the unfolding of events.
“I remember Mama,” a 1948 film starring Irene Dunn, is a well-known classic that can serve as an example. This film, from the stance of a daughter, resonates with most audiences.
One cannot but feel the mother’s emotions when she manipulates her way to her youngest daughter’s bedside at the hospital (despite the hospital rules) just to keep her promise to her and to ensure that she sleeps through the night in peace; when she lets her children believe that she has a bank account when there was none just so that they do not live with worries; when she trades her favorite broach, an heirloom, to buy her oldest daughter a gift set she wanted as a graduation gift.
The values the mother embodied, including “love” over “social status” when she befriended her younger sister’s choice of an undertaker for marriage or seeing the inherent goodness in such people as their gruff but soft-hearted Uncle Chris, are not lost on the children. On the contrary, they are shaped and transformed by them. It is not the bending of rules or the misrepresentations their mother made that mattered. Almost like osmosis, the children could see their way through to her heart, the emotional truth underlying whatever she did for her family. Emotional truth, thus surpasses moral or religious rectitude to an even higher plain — doing right by one’s soul.
The probably less well-known 2004 Scottish film, “Dear Frankie,” starring Emily Mortimer, is yet another example. This film focuses on a young single mother Lizzie whose love for her 9-year old deaf son Frankie prompts her to perpetuate a deception designed to protect him from the truth about his cruel father.
Frankie maintains regular correspondence with someone he believes to be his father, Davey, who allegedly is a merchant seaman working on the ship HMS Accra. In reality, the letters he receives are from his mother who prefers to maintain this charade instead of telling the boy why she fled her marriage. For Lizzie, the letters from her deaf son are precious for this is how she “hears” him.
When Lizzie learns that the Accra will soon be arriving at the docks in Greenock, their hometown, she panics and resorts to hiring a man to impersonate Davey. When Lizzie and the stranger meet, she explains the situation and gives him the letters to provide some background. He agrees to spend a day with Frankie in exchange for the meager payment that Lizzie offers.
The film delves into the emotional truth in hard lonely lives – of Lizzie, Frankie, and his grandmother. They are cautious, wounded people, living just a step above poverty, precariously shielding themselves from a violent past. The grandmother gives every sign of having grown up on the wrong side of town, a chain-smoker who moved in with her daughter to make sure she didn’t go back to the husband. The film’s emotional depth is also in such moments as when Lizzie tells the stranger who impersonates the father that “Frankie wasn’t born deaf. It was a “gift from his dad.” Shielded from this reality, Frankie has grown up to be a sunny, smart boy with a sense of humor. When the kid at the next desk in school writes “Def Boy” on Frankie’s desk, Frankie grins and corrects his spelling.
The stranger, played by Jack McElhone, understands the task of his character, which is to release his better nature. There is also the matter of how much Frankie knows, or intuits, about his father’s long absence.
Dear Frankie allows the film to move straight as an arrow toward its emotional truth, without a single word or plot manipulation to distract us. At the very end, when Lizzie and the stranger are looking at each other, we are looking at them, for a breathless, true moment. They say nothing and everything they need to say is communicated: their doubts, cautions, hopes.
Emotional truth thus makes the stories “real” for readers or film viewers world-wide; audiences can empathize with the characters, even when they are totally different from them, because they recognize in them emotions one feels when one is hurt, scared, angry or happy. As such these emotions are “universal truths.”
Shakespearean plays, George Elliot’s Mill on the Floss, and masterpieces of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O Neil are only some of the treasure hordes waiting to be found and emotionally experienced. The museums of the world also hold treasures of painting, sculptor, music, and much more that can be experienced at the deepest level.
And if we do not have the time or the inclination to read the classics or appreciate the emotional sensibilities of art forms, and if we are instead, more drawn to current stories and events, we may choose to watch such movies as “Before Winter Comes” (1969).
This classic movie is about the fate of refugees after World War II in an Austrian camp for displaced persons (brings to mind today’s powerless immigrants washing up in shores all across Europe and America); the story delves into the emotional depths of an interpreter who mediates between the British and the Soviets regarding the fate of various refugees. One of the emotionally potent lines in the story comes from a young and attractive Austrian widow with large sad eyes, who is compelled to sacrifice her body to the fancies of those in power just to survive. She is talking to a young British trooper when she says, “Now you know why we all live under the living God and not die.”
Singer and actress Audra McDonald said in a recent interview that emotional truth is “about getting to the “core,” to a deeply human essence of a song or character and conveying that essence through lyrics, melodic passages, or a set of harmonies.
Today, when we are all about action movies, blood, gore and other tantalizing visual effects, and when television talk shows and reality shows dig into the mundane or inconsequential facts and figures, it may be time to set our priorities and seek more meaningful, universal, timeless emotional experiences that can shape our evolution to “whole” human beings.
Fortunately in America and in other countries as well, we have some of the treasures right at our fingertips. Public Television programs like Masterpiece Theater, Great Performances, NOVA, and Nature help us emotionally explore at a personal and deep level the nuances of feelings conveyed through the productions. We are also blessed with radio stations such as WQXR and other classical stations accessible through Internet as well to experience the depths of emotions in great music.
In closing, let it be known that this article does not suggest that one must be a scholar, thinker, or an intellectual with knowledge of the classics or the arts to know and experience emotional truth. It does not take intellectual or analytical abilities to recognize the emotional sensibilities conveyed by a poet in the simplest of poems. Inner beauty, pathos, and other elements of emotional truth can be found through the most direct of mediums that almost anyone can appreciate – be it a play, a film, a melody, a song, or a story. The question is whether we are too preoccupied in the “ buzz” of daily living to give credence to things that matter.
Children who are fascinated by fairy tales have perhaps experienced emotional truth since they are often drawn not just to the story but also to the emotions underlying the characters. And so too are adults who have had unique experiences or transformations, if you will, through their deep connection or empathy with characters from history or fiction.