"Choosing" Not to Feel — Spock’s Dysfunctional Coping Mechanism
In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock makes the following statement:
"You misunderstand. It is true I chose not to feel anything as I realized my own life was ending. As Admiral Pike was dying, I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing — anger, confusion, loneliness, fear. I had experienced those feelings before, multiplied exponentially, on the day my planet was destroyed. Such as feelings is something I choose never to to experience again.”
Here, Spock is basically stating that, following the emotional agony he endured when his planet was destroyed and his mother died, he has decided not to allow himself to feel such emotions again. This is his way of coping — it is not that he doesn’t care, it is that he can’t bear to experience such feelings again. And so he “chooses” not to.
And yet, it’s a very dysfunctional and unhealthy mechanism of coping. Because while one can control how one deals with or expresses one’s emotions (which is what Vulcans do, because they do indeed have feelings), one cannot control what one feels.
In humans, this is especially a problem for those suffering from serious disorders, such as phobias, depression, or PTSD. Those who are depressed cannot control the emptiness, loneliness, and sadness they feel. No one wants to feel this way and telling such people to “just be happy” or to “get over it” is not only pointless but also quite cruel. I’ve known of too many individual who have buried their depression and put on a happy face out of the mistaken belief that they should be able to control what they feel. But they can’t — it’s not their fault — and such a tactic is counterproductive. it’s similar for individuals suffering from phobias — they don’t want to be afraid and many of them realize that their fear is irrational, but they can’t control it, and it’s often embarrassing to have to deal with individuals who ridicule their emotional responses.
Then there’s day-to-day emotions: anxiety about a test, concern over the future, happiness when you succeed in a video game. These emotions also rise in us unbidden and while we can control how demonstrative we are and whether or not we express them (as well as how we express them), we can’t control what or how we feel about something in the first place.
Vulcans may be a different species, but they do feel (as demonstrated by Sarek’s love for Amanda) and Spock himself must deal with his emotions while masking them using the logical control he learned as a Vulcan. Spock, despite his claims, cannot control how he feels — he cannot choose what to feel or even if he feels at all.
When his mother died, he could not simply choose not to feel the pain, grief, and anguish at her death and it emotionally compromised him and caused him to lash out at Kirk. He even confesses to his father that he feels anger towards Nero — “an anger he cannot control” — for the loss of his mother. Sarek reassures Spock that his mother would tell him not to try to control it.
Finally, the very existence of kolinahr — the purging of all emotion — is evidence that Vulcans cannot “choose” not to feel. If that were the case, there would be no reason for kolinahr to even exist as Vulcans could simply choose not to feel at all times, to maintain a calm and rational state even as they suffer the loss of the ones they love.
It is the loss of Jim that finally forces Spock to confront the basic truth that he cannot “choose not to feel.” As Kirk lays dying, asking Spock to help him not be afraid, he asks Spock, “How do you choose not to feel?” And Spock can only reply, “I do not know. Right now I am failing.”
In spite of what he may have stated earlier, when confronted with the emotions of anger, confusion, loneliness, and fear again, Spock cannot control feeling them. He feels them intensely and, just as when he lost his mother, he is powerless to remain calm and rational in the face of them. Spock feels anger towards Khan — whose firing at the ship forced Kirk to sacrifice his life — the same way he felt anger towards Nero. An anger he could not control.
This is Spock’s arc in Into Darkness — it is realizing that one cannot choose not to feel, that one can only choose how to deal with emotions and choose how to express them. It is why he does not know how to answer Kirk when questioned and why he fails not to feel. He is simply emotionally overwhelmed in the face of such agonizing loss — the loss of Jim.
I like to believe that when OU Spock was ending the Kolinahr ritual, part of him realized that he would cease to exist as a whole being if he took the final initiation. Perhaps in desperation, that part of his mind cast about and encountered V’ger’s consciousness, and clung to that when the priestess melded with him, thus invalidating his quest.
I believe this saved his life, although he acted very ‘flat’ at first, when he returned to Starfleet.
AU Spock has a different path- he’s been bashed around quite badly- losing his world, his friend (briefly) and nearly, his life at Khan’s hands. I wonder if anyone noticed that he stopped Khan from killing him by mind-melding with him- in effect, transferring his pain to his attacker.
The movies don’t address this, and fanfic is too busy trying to get Spock to ditch Uhura and hook up with Kirk, but I believe that Spock is suffering from his own version of PTSD. His behavior in the second movie points to that many times, including his near-death in the volcano. He actually looked angry when he discovered that he’d been rescued. And his behavior towards his lover also indicated that he was not well.