It was a phrase I heard too often while growing up.
And to be honest, it is still a phrase that sprinkles my universe a little too often. Except that, as an adult, the command is often masked in more genteel phrases, as it’s not generally sanctioned to tell other adults to settle down—except perhaps in certain hospital wards.
So we create slight variations of the theme, like:
“Don’t be so loud.”
“Don’t be silly.”
And there are many variations on the theme. But often the message being delivered is just a whittled down version of, “Please be more corpse-like!”
She exaggerates, you say. But do I?
We learn early in life—especially as women, at least in the middle-class Anglo culture I’ve been raised in—to contain, hold back, be stoic, and just “tone it down” in all ways. Including color. We soon learn to discard the bright and bold for the muted and professional colors. I still have a vivid memory of standing on a first floor balcony overlooking a crowded piazza in Rome one December evening several years ago. I gazed down at a sea of people in a sea of black: black leather jackets, black jeans, trousers. There were women in black and men in black, with a few splatters of gray and white for highlights.
This scene stood in marked contrast to the sea of people I’d just left behind in Bangkok. I was reentering Rome after a year in Thailand and some months in India, so the monochromatic conformity below gave the sensation of life switching from color to black and white. My eyes had not only habituated but had come to relish brighter tones and vibrancy of Thailand and India.
As I viewed the scene, the phrase “culture of death” flashed across my mind. I had to exert effort to cull the reference from my memory banks. It had been the term used by the famous priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan, critiquing the corporate, capitalistic, and militaristic values and institutions that strip away the sacred. In so doing, he argued, they perpetuate and even glorify the culture of death. I wondered if all this black was the unconscious uniform of that culture.
I observed the game below: Look cool. Feel sophisticated. Fit in.
And while we’ve made some progress since the Victorian era, the best way to fit in and be acceptable is still to “settle down.” To temper passion and be mild-mannered. To be stoic. I might argue that even in 2020, there is nothing more intolerable in our society than an angry woman. (Except for maybe an angry black woman.)
As essayist and columnist for New York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky, says in a recent newsletter, “Writing about emotions is just one of the many things a woman can do to ensure that no one takes her seriously, ever. Nothing is easier to disavow than an emotional woman.”
Yet women are not just asked to tame our negative emotions from a young age. I remember being told to “settle down” amidst fits of laughter and howls of delight. All emotions had to be toned down. I notice even now friends try to reign me in if I am too emphatic or animated in my speech or story-telling. I remember being reprimanded by a Danish friend of mine after leaving a dinner party she had invited me to in her hometown. “You praised too much. The meal wasn’t that exceptional! You exaggerated. Maybe it’s American style, but we don’t do that here.”
I was guilty as charged; I had indeed been unable to hold back my utter delight at the deliciousness of the meal. I’m sure everyone at that dinner table had learned the word “yummy” that night. As I took in her words, I remembered being similarly informed by my Dutch friend that my expressiveness was, well, too much. Perhaps it was my shroud of shame that prompted him to add that his 13-year-old daughter found it refreshing. Yet even at my “mature” age, I still succumb to the reflexive wave of shame that arises in those moments when I haven’t succeeded in toning it down, when I’m told that my voice carries or that my laugh can be heard from the next room.
When I’m told, to varying degrees, that I’m too much.
But more recently, after the shame dissipates, a healthier reaction sets in: like a bit of anger and the desire to challenge the repression. How did we come to create a culture where I am shamed for my exuberance? Why is it more socially acceptable to be dispirited and depressed than rambunctious and joyful? Does anybody ever tell a depressed person to tone it down? Not likely. Because at least they are contained. Manageable.
If we learn to tone down passion at a young age, we are better prepared to live toned-down lives and settle for toned-down relationships, so we can be manageable, toned-down citizens. With our life force tempered, it’s easier to fit in. And the perk is that it may be easier to ignore that hole we feel deep inside. That hole where life once streamed through.
I remember I used to walk regularly with a friend of mine who was trying to lose weight during my second year of college. On one such walk, feeling high from the unusual warmth and scent of spring on that February day, I bolted over to the swing set in the park we were passing, jumped on, and shrieked with delight as the swing catapulted me into the air. I had loved swinging as a child and couldn’t resist the temptation. I called to my friend to join me, but she stood there, with her hand on her hip, immobile. “I don’t feel like it,” she said, shaking her head from side to side.
I instantly jumped off to quell what I thought was growing irritation and joined her. She looked me squarely in the eyes, and then said with a hint of amusement, “You’re so different! I don’t know anybody else who would have done that.”
“Done what?” I asked, confused.
“Acted so spontaneously. So playfully. All I could think was that I didn’t want to get grass stains on my new tennis shoes.”
Her word really struck me, because I thought I had acted so typically. Wouldn’t most people do the same? I assumed so. So by college, did most people have playful knocked out of them? I wondered about it the rest of that day.
Don’t get me wrong, I can easily hit mute on “playful” while cranking up the volume on “need to be productive.” In fact, I spent much of college too intent on saving the world: as an International Relations major, I fretted over how we could redistribute the world’s wealth from South to North, became vegetarian in order to eat lower on the food chain and feed more people, and organized teach-ins to end the Gulf War (the first one). I over-studied and under-partied.
But I still had the ability to respond to the siren call of a swing set. And passion untempered enough to grab a bullhorn, stand up on a chair on my university quad, and decry the chancellor’s latest fee hikes.
And later on, the audacity to buy orange shoes to go with my white wedding dress (even though my Italian mother-in-law insisted on toning them down to a sappy salmon).
Essentially, what we are saying to girls when we say “settle down” is this: Dampen your emotions. Refrain from living wildly or passionately.
From a young age, we lead little girls to the box like we lead a mouse to the trap. A little cheese and an instant reward in exchange for a death trap. (And yes, this suppression of emotion does lead to death.)
If we don’t want to rock the boat, we must tone it down: the color, the voice, the sentiment, the passion, the attitude. So we end up not just with toned-down women, but a toned-down humanity. Is that how we manage to live in a society where we have such a high tolerance for violence? Isn’t there something just a bit incongruent about a society that embraces a Tarantino film far more readily than a woman laughing loudly?
When we are told to settle down, we are being told to stymie our passion, to live within the small range of acceptable emotions, and to shut down the rest. So we learn to stuff them away. But the price of doing so is not just shutting down our own emotions, but inhibiting our ability to feel others.
We then easily create an environment that leads us to look away from a homeless person. It becomes too uncomfortable to look them in the eyes. We might see a disquieting vulnerability. Perhaps a look of despair or resignation. Or if we see refugees and babies in detention camps, we may not have access to outrage or indignation, for those emotions have long been diluted.
The irony is that we live in a world where so many feel unheard and unseen. It’s the major lament, from couples to the realm of identity politics: “He/she/They don’t get me. I don’t feel understood.” What I learned, however, in my practice of Heart Intelligence is that we can only feel another to the extent that we can feel ourselves. So, if I haven’t allowed myself to feel sadness or grief, I will not be able to meet you in your own sadness or grief.
We have to be able to hold it in ourselves before we can hold it for somebody else.
As I was contemplating this topic, I happened upon a video by spiritual teacher Aisha Salem entitled “Naturally Taking Care.” In it she says:
“The rejection of our own passion is the rejection of our feminine intelligence. (And it is not about women or females). The feminine intelligence is that which makes anything sustainable. There is nothing sustainable about our disconnection. If we protect and nurture our own human nature, then in the lives that we live, we automatically—with our connection to ourselves—it is completely natural to take care: to take care of ourselves, to take care of each other, to take care of nature, to take care of the environment.”
So the next time we’re tempted to tell a child to settle down, we might consider the deeper ramifications of our words. They are not as harmless as we think. For in toning down the passion, we may just be toning down the ethics of care and compassion—the only things that can truly sustain our world.