When a photographer takes a picture, she changes the camera’s focus and depth of field to highlight different parts of any scene. She may choose to have the foreground in focus, or a single person, or to have everything slightly out of focus to provide an unusual mood.
Waking up each day and going to bed each night provide the same opportunity. The day is filled with infinite images and information, but we can focus our. . .perceptions in order to create the effect we are after.
~D. Barnes Boffey, Ed.D. in “Focusing the Day” from My Gift in Return: Thoughts on the Journey to Becoming Real
Every single human being alive feels. That is a shared commonality of which we can be absolutely certain. Everyone alive feels pain, joy, longing, hunger, awe, gratitude, anger, fear, and love…to name just a few. There are varying degrees of feeling, which depend on our experiences, but those variances don’t really matter.
When I was thirteen years old, I fell in love for the first time. You may think of the rap in Justin Bieber’s pop hit “Baby” and laugh; we often diminish the love that children and adolescents feel. We measure it against the love we feel as adults, instead of honoring it as the real and authentic experience of another human being. When I was thirteen, in unrequited love and miserable for it, a good friend and mentor told me to “call it a crush because it crushes you,” not because it’s any less than real love. She told me that as she had grown older, the way that she loved grew as well, but that thirteen year old love had felt just as intense to her at the time. She respected my feelings and empathized with them, teaching me my first lesson about humanity: no matter how we are different, we all feel in the same way.
Why don’t we focus more on the way we feel? Why don’t we ask, when we meet a person for the first time, how they feel about their life, or how they feel about a certain topic or person? Instead, we ask where they come from, what they do, or what they believe.
Rene Descartes said famously, “I think, therefore I am,” enshrining our modern societies in a tyranny of logic. By logical default, according to Descartes, those who do not think, are not. Of course, Descartes was referring to humanity’s distinction from the all-knowing God. The less famous beginning to his theory was “I doubt, therefore I think.”
I propose that it is our narrow focus on thinking which divides us. It is our doubt which makes us seek to understand each other by turning everyone into a sea of somebodies broken down and categorized according to age, sex, race, color, family, national origin, religious belief, sexual preference, ability, education, citizenship, occupation, parental status, financial position, political affiliation, whether or not we eat animal products, mental health status, place of residence, and criminal history. And when we pass people on the street and they ask, “how are you,” meaning “how are you feeling,” only our closest friends actually care to know.
Notably, despite its emotional implications, the typical extension of “how are you” is not “how are you feeling” but “how are you doing,” which doesn’t actually make sense. And when we realize someone really does care to know, we rarely express ourselves with actual feeling words, but instead say we are “fine,” “good,” “great,” “not so good,” “awful,” or “okay.” Those are not feelings; they are judgments. Painful feelings are deemed bad, and pleasant feelings are deemed good. Unfortunately, hearing these judgments doesn’t tell us anything about the way a person actually feels—it tells us how long we may have to talk about feelings. Unless the person explains how they feel in greater detail, we will not understand them any better, or be able to empathize with their human experience.
By subordinating feeling in favor of thinking, we prioritize our individual egos and abandon any hope of living in genuine communion with one another as whole human beings. We are social animals, so we seek synthetic community in our subcategories. Parents find community with other parents, students with other students, and rich people with other rich people. It is our way of saying, “I understand you, we are the same.” But these communities are based on the assumption that people in the same subcategory experience the world—feel—the same way. I don’t mean feel in the same way, like I said earlier about all humans, but experience the same feelings. If we were to talk more articulately about our feelings we would realize this is not true; if we were to value our feelings more, we would realize it does not need to be true, that feeling in the same way is more than enough to understand someone and form fulfilling communities.
Synthetic empathy, which is based not on feelings but on predictable patterns of behavior, is reserved only for members of the same subcategories and is therefore insufficient. Our blanket fear of everything unknown leads to our distrust and even hatred of those who fit in different subcategories. This has often led to war, in the case of nationality and religion. It also leads to violent crime, murder, slavery, supremacy, dominance and subordination, bullying, abuse, torture, ignorance, and disregard for our fellow human beings. The tyranny of logic does not eliminate our feelings or give us control over them; it channels them without our consent. And it heightens our fear of the unknown.
I am not suggesting that in order to prevail against war and hate, we must necessarily conquer our fear of the unknown. That would be foolish and unrealistically ambitious. It would also be a mis-fire. Instead, we must realize that we have the tools to know ourselves and other people better, even people we think are completely foreign and different from us. Those tools are feeling and empathizing.
I am not suggesting that logic has no value or place in human societies. It absolutely does. It is acutely necessary. But not at the expense of feeling and empathizing.
Because here’s the deal: just because we don’t value feeling enough to talk about it or give it any credit, doesn’t mean we stop feeling. It means we do not learn to understand or respect our feelings enough to blend them with logic in a healthy way. We learn either to react or repress. We also do not learn to respect other people’s feelings, and this is what leads to hatred and competition.
We have the ability, as Barnes Boffey reminds us, to focus the proverbial lens of our perceptions a certain way in order to create a desired effect. I have made the argument that focusing narrowly on logic at the expense of feeling leads to division and hate, and that if we want peace, harmony, and respect among all human beings, we must sharpen our focus on feeling, not as a way to diminish the importance of logic, but as a way to understand each other and connect with each other on a human level.
Focusing on and expressing how we feel and hearing how others feel will lessen our focus on division and categorical differences. It will increase our abilities to forgive, to respect, and to love. It will allow us to channel our feelings as we choose, and over time with the right kind of practice, it will teach us to channel our feelings in productive, rather than destructive ways.
It is helpful to remember, though it may be a cliche at this point to say, that we are not humans having a spiritual experience, but spirits having a human experience.
I believe humans–and all creatures–are made every day in the image of God, not because God has a body that looks human, but because of our souls. Thought is the stuff of bodies and brains; feeling is the stuff of the soul. So, with all due respect to Descartes, I have a different theory:
I feel, therefore I am.