Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2002 / 13 Kislev, 5763
We all know the '70s song that in many ways has become a caricature, prompting the gag reflex in certain quarters.
Still, though the love song has become a cliche, we as a culture have become more and more "feelings" obsessed.
Today the mantra of the experts is variously, "get in touch with your feelings," "share your feelings," "understand your feelings," "learn to trust your feelings," and, it would seem, "reveal your feelings on daytime talk shows," ad nauseam.
Cable news shows regularly ask viewers to call in and share what they "think" about questions like "will we go to war with Saddam this month? Does Al Qaeda have weapons of mass destruction? Will we successfully clone a human being within the next five years?"
Such questions have objective answers that no one, or only a few people, can actually come close to knowing. But that doesn't stop the callers from phoning in. These days not "knowing" anything doesn't typically stop a person from "thinking" whatever he wants to about the issue.
I'll never forget watching a cable broadcast of three famous actresses testifying before Congress on the issue of family farms. The announcer said with total seriousness, "what do these women know about farming issues? Recently, each starred in a movie about farm life. . ."
We've seen such silliness repeated all too often.
My children will frequently ask their dad or me what we "think" about things. Often it's a joy to watch their little minds search, and question, and develop and connect and truly "think." But sometimes their questions are along the lines of, "where do you think the guy in that car over there is going, mom" or "do you think the new Harry Potter movie will be better than the first one?" Over and over we explain that thinking requires knowledge. (Even when it comes to something as simple as a person preferring green to red, for instance, one presumes he has seen both colors.) In any event, I explain to them that I can't "think" anything about where the fellow in the car over there is headed or how I'll rate a movie I haven't seen or read about.
The idea that having views about a matter requires some level of knowledge about the issue, the notion that sometimes we should say, "I don't have the information about that to have a legitimate opinion," is not exactly common currency in our culture. On opinion polls, for instance, Americans are notably quite loathe to answer "I don't know" to any question if that choice is not explicitly provided.
As I've explained to my kids, it's almost always easier to "feel" about something than to think about it. And that's why today the former so often masquerades as the latter. (I think - yes think - the kids are getting it.)
But if we mix up "thinking" and "feeling," where things really get crazy is when we are talking about feelings themselves. So then today if someone "feels" he is a victim of racism, or sexism, or that his boss is working him too hard, or the teacher wasn't fair, or even that she's too sensitive or he's not sensitive enough, the ONLY thing that matters is our own perception. The objective question of whether or not he was discriminated against because of race, or she was because of sex, or whether the boss is expecting too much, is rarely assessed. Gazing rationally on our personal relationships may be rarer still.
What matters is only how we "feel."
The irony, of course, is that the face-value approach to feelings our therapeutic nation has adopted minimizes the richness and complexity of emotions. Understanding our feelings can give us great insight into our emotional make-up, into the very thing that makes us wonderfully human, and different from other humans. But today we no longer learn to think, yes think, rightly about our feelings and emotions. We don't teach our children to reflect upon when and how feelings should, or shouldn't, guide behavior. We are certainly loathe to make - gasp! - value judgments about our feelings. It's clear that today the only taboo about feelings is repressing them.
And I think that that's a national tragedy.
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