Our world has shifted, and the effect has been no less dramatic than if magnetic north suddenly pointed south. What is this shift? Reason no longer reigns with dispassionate, detached coolness over our lives. You may argue that it never really did reign and that it’s overrated, but the fact remains that feelings have put reason in a choke hold and shoved it off the wall à la Humpty Dumpty.
This is not exactly news and has been going on for years, the effect, in part, of nihilism, French deconstructionism, the hijacking of our educational system by bureaucrats, and the dominance of a therapeutic worldview where everything is measured in terms of how you relate to it emotionally.
That last one is complex, spanning from Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone accumulator” to a pharma industry that would have us popping pills like gummy bears to manage our moods. Of course, we could just let Eli Lilly manage them, which is the real goal. Just this morning I downed a fistful of vitamin tablets in the shape of gum drops covered in granulated sugar.
Please understand that I am not talking about the end of Victorian sobriety or Thomistic logic. That D train left the 59th Street station long ago, although I would welcome its return with open arms. What I am referring to is the predominance of feelings and its irrational logic in everyday life. Ordinary people–you and I–now think, act, and relate according to new norms based on feelings, not reason.
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider the ubiquity of safe zones where people can find refuge from all manner of emotional distress. In formal settings, the work is done by professionals who have spent years processing their own emotions. I am reminded of Oliver Sacks, who reportedly said on his deathbed after fifty years of therapy, “I think we’re finally getting somewhere.”
I don’t deny for a minute the need of individuals to achieve psychic wholeness or of families and communities to come together in the face of tragedy. Meeting those needs is crucial to wellness. It would be cruel to suggest otherwise. But I object to the model becoming normative in other areas of life, from education to business and even STEM.
And I certainly object to it at church, which, contrary to popular belief, does not exist to provide safety to the timid but to give people the strength and courage to accept grace into their lives. That is anything but safe, especially when so much of our culture works against living gracefully.
I am not unfeeling or a Grinch with a barely perceptible heartbeat. However, I recognize that feelings can be tyrannical. This occurs when, unbalanced by either reason or will, they drift toward narcissism. It’s bad enough when this occurs in individuals. When it happens on a societal level, you get ideologies of all stripes with the expected outcome: violence, suppression, and the rewriting of reality.
Truth loses out to comfort. Comfort expands like a waistline and so we create things like comfort food to help us feel better about ourselves.
Years ago I taught a theology course that included Martin Buber (1878-1965) in the reading list. Buber was an existentialist Jewish philosopher who defined love as the responsibility of one person for another. It had little to do with feelings. Why? Because feelings are fickle. You could declare your love for someone in the morning but then tell them to hit the road that night.
That isn’t love. It’s using others for self gratification. So now there’s a billion dollar porn industry dedicated to comfort sex. And comfort workers have organized their own union in some places.
If you legalize certain drugs, sexual behaviors, and entertainment, people will spend their time and money doing what makes them feel good. But they are also easier to control by government and corporations. So feelings at this level are about social control. They prove more effective than Rome’s bread and circuses, because the control works its magic from within rather than being imposed by the emperor. At least for now.
In the meantime, all we can do is reassure each other that we feel their pain.
There’s a drug for that.