Monday, July 11, 2011


Since I wrote least time about joy and happiness, I've been wanting to explore the topic of feelings a little more. It's a weird thing I've noticed in our culture that we seem to harbor our feelings like prized possessions, which no one can touch or devalue, and at the same time we theoretically hold feelings in general in contempt. We love reason and sound thinking, but if anyone tries to tell us that they way we feel is silly or unnecessary, then (with the exception that we then feel shame for our feelings) lash out as if they had attacked the ground we walk on. It's just plain weird.

First of all: the importance of feelings. There is a misconception left over from the Enlightenment era that feelings are inferior to reason, to ideas and thoughts. People fear being led astray by their feelings, yet they trust their thoughts. To me this is putting the cart before the horse. Everything you feel is a result of something you are thinking, whether consciously or subconsciously. If you get mad when someone cuts you off on the highway, it is because you instantly think something awful about that person or about what he did. You're thinking that he shouldn't have done that and that you wish people would treat you with more respect and that they would learn to drive. All your anger explodes out from those simple thoughts. If you repeat these thought reactions, then the feelings occur quicker and more easily. The thought patterns in your brain solidify so that it becomes your natural reaction. Within nanoseconds, a signal goes through your brain telling your emotional centers to fire some anger.

We tend to blame our feelings as if we were doing something without thinking. Technically, we were feeling something, without controlling our thoughts, but thoughts were still streaming around. So to say that our feelings are unreliable is really only to say that our thoughts were unreliable first. The old formula went that we felt a certain way and then our sound reasoning could come in and make better sense of it, and our emotions needed to be controlled so that our thoughts could have freedom to do the wonderful work that they do. In reality our thoughts need to be controlled so that our feelings can do the wonderful work that they do, namely making life enjoyable and fulfilling for our selves and for the rest of the people on the road with us.

Now, this leads directly into the problem that people have with letting go of their feelings. Whenever we feel a certain way, we always feel like we have the right to feel that way. If we are angry about something, it might be stupid and it might be small, but it's the way we feel, and so we don't feel as if anyone can say anything to degrade it. We all act this way, male and female (no matter what John Gray says). If we feel angry, we know that we are supposed to feel angry, no matter if anyone tells us to calm down and relax. When I get upset about getting cut off on the road, I can list several reasons in a span of several seconds, why I not only have the right but the obligation to feel upset.

Under the old paradigm, we might have said that our feelings were getting in the way of letting reason do its job. We might have said that if only we could suppress our feelings, we could just go about our business without the tedium of getting angry, because we'd be fine with life under the cold calculating strictures of reason. The problem is that our reasoning is not cold and calculating. For every thought there is a feeling, and if there is an angry feeling, it is coming from an angry thought. To harbor our feelings as if they are unassailable, uncontrollable animals, is silly. We are all thinking beings, and if we let our feelings control us, it is because we are not willing to pay attention to why we have those feelings in the first place. Feelings are not something to be suppressed and they are not something to be harbored. They are to be formed and shaped by forming proper thoughts. If I have three reasons why I should be angry at the car that cut me off, then what I really need to do is take a second look at those reasons and figure out if those are valid reasons, and if there aren't other reasons that would invalidate them or at least balance them out so that I don't have to feel angry. None of us like to be told to calm down and relax. It seems like an attack on our feelings and an invalidation of something we tend to think is beyond our control. But it isn't.

We need to start treating feelings as being interwoven with our thoughts. Taking control of our feelings starts with taking control of our thoughts. And that starts with paying attention. Is your life going to be over because the car in front of you makes you 3 minutes late to work? Do you really know the guy who cut you off doesn't have a good reason? Is the sun going to stop shining because the car in the next lane didn't see you? Are you really supposed to be the center of everyone else' universe? Put things into perspective. If it helps, put into a cosmic perspective. This is why the bible calls our troubles "light and momentary" - and this referred to heavy persecution. Put into perspective, it's almost never as bad as it seems, and if your feelings are telling you differently, it's because there's some faulty thinking floating around. Stop treating feelings like sacred cows. Let them go, and allow your thoughts to come under scrutiny.

No comments: