On a podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert talked about an emotional register, and I’ve found this idea, not only a fascinating insight into humans, but quite illuminating for fiction writing.

Here’s her telling the story (original audio included at the bottom):

My friend Kevin once attended a wedding where he heard the world’s most inappropriate wedding toast. The toast began inauspiciously enough. The best man stood up during the meal, clinked his knife against the crystal, and the other guests all quieted down.

“I was thinking on the airplane ride here about what I was going to say today about Danny and Joyce,” the best man began. “And all I could think at first was what a happy day today is.” Good enough start. But then this speech took an interesting turn. “And I realized that what I really wanted to talk about this afternoon is jury duty.”

“Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever served on a jury,” he went on. “But it’s a fascinating process. I was just on a jury last year for the first time in my life, and I learned a lot about myself and about the legal system. It was a pretty serious case, too. It was actually a murder trial. It was very tragic. It was this old man who got killed. Very sad. He was getting money out of an ATM in the middle of the day and some gang kids came up and robbed him and shot him right in the face.”

By now, many of the wedding guests were lowering their champagne glasses gently back down to the table. “It was a cut-and-dry case, really,” he went on. “There were plenty of witnesses, and the forensic evidence pointed straight to one kid as the shooter. The kid was definitely guilty. But here’s the thing. It was actually a capital offense. And my jury had to decide whether or not to give this kid the death penalty.”

“Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever had to decide whether somebody should live or die, but it’s emotionally intense. We all knew the kid was guilty, but the death penalty is nothing to take lightly. In the end, though, we decided yes, this kid needs to die. And we sent him to his death.”

The tent was silent. The bride, ashen. The best man took a moment to compose himself and concluded, “That was probably the worst day of my life. And I got to thinking about it on the plane because that day was nothing like today, which is a happy day. A really happy day. So here’s to Danny and Joyce.” Thus concluded the toast.

She pondered this story for years, and what she concluded…

Ultimately, I’ve decided that I get it. I’ve heard it said before that the human psyche cannot always tell the difference between good events and bad events. All we can feel is the tremor of the earth. Which is what happened to our best man, I believe. He was so overcome by happiness for his friend and he was so out of touch with his emotions that he couldn’t express that happiness appropriately. All he could do was remember the last time he had felt so moved by something, and so he tried to express that.

When he thought of his best friend getting married, he had no relatable thoughts. The only thing his mind presented him was compared in emotional weight. So he tried to express that emotion in the only way he could, by telling about that fateful day when he decided to put a fellow human to death.

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The audio: Clipping from This American Life