Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The inner life: feelings

Feelings, for all my life I'll feel it.
I wish I've never met you, girl;
You'll never come again.
 So, is that last line a lament or a threat?

 If you're too young to remember those horrid lyrics you should consider yourself blessed. If you can't help yourself, you can find the song they come from here.

Speaking strictly musically, it's actually a pretty good song. It's the lyrics that make it abominable. And, odd as this may sound Morris Albert is, philosophically, in the same camp as Dante (maybe) and Proust (definitely) about feelings. That is to say, he thinks of feelings as things that happen to us. Dante, in case you are wondering, considered involuntary love to be superior to cultivated affection and Proust thought involuntary memories of the past to be superior to willful attempts of "remembrance of things past" (which is why he hated that title when it was applied to the English translation of his novel).

It's an open question as to whether Dante really believed this or whether it, and his supposed love for Beatrice, were just a literary convention. I think he was too smart to really believe it or really love Beatrice myself. To really believe it seems to me to be a modern problem; it seems to be, as Gottlob Frege put it, a disease in thought peculiar to the modern mind.

In any case, what Morris Albert and Proust share is a belief that there are authentic mental stirrings that are not result of our efforts and that these are superior—even if they cause us pain—to things we consciously try to achieve because they are not sought after.

I think that's just wrong. Feelings are not something that happens to me; they are my reaction to what happens to me. I can control my reactions. I can't control them perfectly. It is going to be difficult for me to control my feelings if I really have to catch the 8:15 bus and the driver doesn't see me at the stop and heads right by. On the other hand, the ancients judged men by how well they handled such situations; men were expected to respond in a controlled way when sentenced to death, for example.

That may seem like so much nonsense now but I believe that controlling your feelings makes you and your life better than they otherwise would be. It not only does no good to get all worked up over the missed bus, it decreases the quality of my life to do so. We're told the opposite. We're told to open up and let our feelings out.

But letting anger out just makes you unhappy. Your pulse races, your body releases adrenalin and you get all tense. You don't feel better for doing it. You feel worse. And people who have to deal with you feel worse too because you become difficult to deal with.

Look at Morris Albert again, a woman has left him and he wishes he'd never met her. Is that healthy? He is now going to treat his entire relationship with this woman as something negative. There are no good memories? There are no lessons learned that he can apply to future relationships? The woman he once loved is so utterly worthless that it would have been better to have never met her? That's a stupid, self-destructive way of considering a past relationship.

The feelings we have about a failed relationship are within our control. We can shape them and mold them; we can train ourselves to respond in certain ways.

Self-analysis is useless for this. What, if anything, would self analysis mean? Notice that any attempt to describe self analysis requires us to use metaphors that do not, in fact, correspond to any real activity: "look deep withing myself", "turn inward", and so forth. What we can know and what we can control are our outward responses. To the extent that we talk about inward responses at all, we do so in a negative way: "stay calm", "don't sit around mulling about it", "don't get worked up".

What we really have when we have feelings

One of the more telling linguistic shifts of modern times has been the substitution of words meaning feelings for words meaning belief. Jennifer says, "I feel like you don't trust me?" As many have pointed out before me, the primary consequence of that shift is to make these statements incontestable. The assumption is that you cannot be mistaken about your own feelings. If I am in pain, then I am in pain and you can't say I'm not.

And there is something to that. Randy may respond to Jennifer by saying he is jealous, and he probably is jealous (although people do lie about such things sometimes). But it should be reasonable to ask whether Jennifer and Randy are entitled to feel the way they do. It's telling that Jennifer doesn't want to have an argument about the facts. Did her actions cause Randy to suspect her? It's equally telling that Randy wants to talk about his feelings of jealousy rather than discuss what actions of Jennifer's might justify his jealousy. What both are trying to do is to avoid acknowledging that their feelings are the result of a thought process. Each has considered the others actions and has reached conclusions about what the other is thinking or doing.

Randy notices that Jennifer is always away and that her absences aren't always explained, that the explanations she does give are vague and perhaps they sometimes don't stand scrutiny. Randy knows this doesn't necessarily mean Jennifer is cheating but he wonders and it shows. This feeling isn't something that just happened to Randy. It took sustained effort on his part to arrive at this feeling.

Jennifer, likewise, knows that things she is doing are causing Randy to wonder. It's not some bizarre, unexpected discovery that he is beginning to wonder what she is up to. Let's stipulate, for the sake of the argument, that Jennifer is not actually cheating on Randy. All she is doing is beginning to develop an independent life away from him. The argument could go either way. What is important to note, however, is that in neither case are their feelings something that just happened to them. Their feelings are the product of the way they have analyzed the actions of the other and of how they have responded.

In both cases, it would be entirely reasonable to ask if these feelings were justified.

One of the telling things about modern life is that we tend not to do that. We tend to do just the opposite. When we train people to interact with others, we teach them to validate their feelings. We teach them to say, "You must be frustrated", or "I understand your anger" because we don't challenge people's right to really have their feelings. When couples see a therapist they are encouraged to discuss the way they feel and not to discuss what they do or don't like about what the other did. Ironically, liberal democracy, which was built on the right to free expression of political and religious beliefs, now suppresses freedom of expression of fact and opinion because of the effect this expression might have on the feelings of others.

This is turning us into a bunch losers and it's undermining the basis of our society. There isn't much we can do about the first but we can at least stop pretending that we don't control our own feelings and start taking responsibility for them.


  1. A little off-topic, but I wonder what you think about the Ignatian Examen? I agree with you that analyzing one's own feelings is only useful to a limited extent, and often ends up being an endlessly recursive process of self scrutiny that doesn't really get you anywhere (and possibly makes you more egocentric than you were before). Nevertheless something like the Ignatian Examen seems to me to be more productive, even though it consists of analyzing your feelings. Perhaps an important distinction is that not all of these feelings are automatically assumed to be "legitimate"--they can be good or bad.

    1. This isn't off topic at all. If one were to seriously analyze one's feelings, Ignatian spirituality is definitely a good way to go. I started doing the Examen this past summer and have nothing but good to say about it. I only do the Examen a few times a week as opposed to every day, but even that has made a huge difference.

      Having tried it myself, I think the primary thing to grasp about Ignatian spirituality is that it requires two seemingly contradictory things. On the one had, it requires seriousness and regular habit. On the other hand, it requires that you not be overly scrupulous. And that is hard because if you start you will become much, much more aware of your failings. Every single time you do the Examen, they will be right there in your face.

      When I was nineteen or so, I mentioned to my father that I was thinking of doing the Examen and he turned very grave and said to me that no young man should ever do Ignatian spirituality alone. That is still very good advice. You need a friend (I would suggest another man if at all possible) as a sounding board.

      Final thought: I think that it is no accident that Ignatian spirituality begot Jesuit casuistry. It's a little like physical exercise: I may hope to run a mile someday but if I can currently only run fifty yards, a more reasonable goal is to focus on building up to a hundred yards. I think that if one is to do the Examen right, I think you have to have that sort of goal in mind.

  2. Well that makes three of us, I try to do the Ignatian Examen daily but don't always. I did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in the mid-90s and was mentored by a Jesuit who was in his early 80s at that time but as vibrant as I was. It had a profound impact on my life. I don't rule out self-analysis, after all that is part of Ignatian Spirituality. I agree that all feelings are not necessarily legitimate, they can be good, bad, and many (maybe most) can be temporary. Your illustration early in the post about the man who wishes he had never met the girl who broke up with him is a good example. Those are the feelings that some get right after a relationship has ended not by the person's choice. Most of the time those feelings pass as the healing process takes place, and the person is then able to look at the relationship more objectively, and able to appreciate the good things about it. Feelings are transitory, studies show that expressing feelings of anger actually does more harm than was originally assumed.

    1. Kudos for doing the Spiritual Exercises. I've never had the discipline for that.

  3. One more thought. One thing I have found very useful is to cross Ignatian and Augustinian spirituality by writing out the Examen in a journal of confessions in which I show gratitude, analyze my failings and confess my faith. I use a cheap notebook as this is for me and not posterity and write out the words I say to God as I make my Examen. I write out what I am grateful for, write out how I felt in response to various trials and write out my sins. Then I write out some small improvement I want to work towards. Often, it will be the same small improvement for weeks or months on end. On Sunday, I review my week and thank God.

    One of the many benefits of this is that my prayer gets shorter as writing it out is more effort and I spend less time talking and more time trying to be responsive. When the notebooks are finished, I just throw them away.

  4. Thanks for that tip, I'm going to start doing that. What I find is that in order to do justice to the Examen, you have to mentally remove yourself completely from whatever has occupied your mind that day or that week. And that's part of what's good about it, it forces you to do that.

  5. BTW, I always thought that the song you refer to in the original post was idiotic, even when it first came out and I was a young man in the 1970s. The melody wasn't bad but the lyrics were just stupid.

  6. Its snowing here today, everything is cancelled, so I thought I'd make one more point about feelings and why you can't put too much stock in them. A recurrent theme in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is "consolation" and "desolation," Ignatius says they are both part of the human condition which we know is true. Consolation is when you feel at one with God and everything is proceeding according to His plan. Desolation is when you feel the opposite, maybe that God has abandoned you (if there even is a God), nothing makes sense, you don't see the purpose of life, etc. Ignatius essentially says that we have to ride those periods out, that God hasn't abandoned us, and that those feelings will pass and we must not lose Faith. I've been told that some of the saints experienced as much as 40 yrs of desolation. Yet they continued to get up every morning, presumably went to Mass and did what they knew in their heads and hearts they had to do. So their feelings had nothing to do with it, Faith is bigger or more powerful than feelings.