A trend that has caught some attention recently is the increase in “trigger warnings,” which allow people who have been traumatized to know if they should avoid a particular article, lecture, film, course, etc. that might trigger difficult emotional responses or even flashbacks to their trauma. Such trigger warnings are increasingly commonplace, and controversial: some argue that putting warnings on anything that might trigger a negative emotional response sanitizes the world and makes it nearly impossible to talk about anything. This is seen as an extension of the so-called doctrine of “politically correct” or “PC” speech that politicians and talking heads like Donald Trump say is emblematic of a breakdown in society. Some take it as an infringement on their right to free speech, others merely an inconvenience, and others as a sign of weakness.
This post is not about being politically correct. I brought this trend up because it points to another trend, which is that we’re more aware of mental health issues than ever before, and presumably we have more mental health issues than ever before (though that’s hard to tell, if we did not identify them in the past). Put differently, we’re aware of our feelings more than ever, and we’re taking steps to protect them. Counselling was only for the weak when I was a kid, but is commonplace now. Anti-bullying groups and legislation are working to stop playground – and increasingly, online – harassment and assault against kids and teens, and such programs are usually very well supported by the community (unless they are specifically aimed at those who bully gay kids, but that’s a story for another day too).
But not everyone, even among those who support anti-bullying clubs (at least in principle), thinks that this increasing awareness of our feelings and the desire to protect those feelings is a good thing. And not just for free speech concerns either. There is a legitimate argument here: sometimes we’re offended by things that we shouldn’t be offended by, and sometimes being offended can be a good thing. For example, I regularly see Christians get offended by things they feel go against their religion; as a Christian who has studied Christianity extensively over the last dozen years, the things that some Christians take to be anti-Christian often baffle me. I’ve even seen examples of Christians offended by genuine expressions of orthodox, mainstream Christianity, showing their ignorance of their own faith tradition. When that happens, I feel offended by their ignorant backlash, and I’m glad that I haven’t become so cynical as to not be bothered by the way my religion gets absolutely butchered and misrepresented in such situations. I’m offended when people are cruel or cold to others, too, because I see our shared humanity being disrespected. If we cover up all of the things that offend us because we don’t like feeling offended, how can we ever actually address injustice? If survivors of the residential school system hadn’t come forward to tell their deeply unsettling stories, would we ever move toward reconciliation?
But some take the concern further, saying that this awareness of our feelings and desire to protect them undermines our ability to think. I came across this meme a few days ago:
This is obviously an old quote, but it’s making the rounds on Facebook. I don’t know the original context, but the way it is presented here draws a distinction between thinking and feeling that should not exist. It is somewhat possible to separate them, and the fact that it is possible is evidenced by the way people devalue feeling and elevate thinking when they pass stuff like this around. It is evidenced by the way that an entire generation of apologists value being right more than they value the feelings of those whom they believe are wrong. Me saying so is undoubtedly unfair: most of these apologists are explicitly concerned with the eternal salvation of those with and about whom they debate. But nevertheless, they continue to say and do things that hurt people, and when those people complain about being hurt they resort to this theory that people simply feel too much and think too little, and confuse their feeling with thinking.
Here’s the thing about feeling: it is entirely subjective. We have never had the myth that feeling is objective, like we have with thinking. For the past few hundred years (the “modern” era) we have held the delusion that we can think objectively, that what is obvious to one person ought to be recognized as truth by others because it merely reflects reality. This way of thinking was challenged by postmodern views, which point out that our thinking is almost entirely subjective and that true objectivity is either nearly or entirely impossible. But we’ve always known this about feelings – some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are moved to tears by a sunset, while others have no pity for a puppy with only one leg (remember Strongbad, anyone?). We’ve historically found social uniformity with feelings mostly by making sensitive people suppress their emotions (usually by calling them names like “wuss” and “pussy”), which is probably why it took us so long to realize just how crucial mental health is to a healthy person and a healthy society. We now know that emotional trauma even has physiological effects, and are discovering that many people with physical symptoms like obesity or drug addiction have been using such things to hide/treat childhood trauma. So while the extent and importance of feeling is becoming increasingly apparent, we’ve always known that people feel differently and for different reasons – but compared to the universal objectivity of critical thinking, subjective feelings were deemed illusory, contradicting, and maybe even dangerous.
But now that we realize that thinking is not objective, we can no longer make such a separation. We now recognize that we see the world through a unique lens that is shaped by our previous knowledge and experience – the same things that shape our feelings. We are able to think about almost anything, but inevitably our feelings reveal our true beliefs and worldview, which we hold largely subconsciously.
Christians deal with this all the time: we recognize the difficulty of turning our beliefs into actions or a way of life is terribly difficult. In church this morning, the pastor pointed out that Peter really believed that he was ready to die with Jesus and would not abandon him. The scene in which Peter realizes that he has abandoned Jesus so is terribly poignant. Did Peter’s feelings and instincts for self-preservation overcome his belief, or did his actions simply exemplify a level of commitment that turned out to be less than he believed it was? Was it his feelings that were at fault, or his thinking? Did he just lack courage, or did he overestimate the amount of courage he actually had? The answer, of course, is both.
Traditionally, the church has upheld three integrated points of discipleship: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. The fact that my spellchecker only recognizes the first of these three words goes to show how much we have valued one of these above the others. Orthodoxy, or right belief, has unfortunately taken precedence for I-don’t-know-how-long. Orthopraxy, or right actions, has been deemed too Catholic by most Protestant churches, which emphasize the saving grace of God over (and apart from) works or actions. And orthopathy, or right “affections”…well, I had to look the term up, and I only became aware of its existence at all halfway through Seminary. The point is, these three things are interrelated: we can say that we have integrity only if our thoughts, feelings (desires), and actions all align, but for at least the last few hundred years we’ve only seen integrity as an alignment between beliefs and actions, leaving affections out of it entirely.
With that in mind, I think it is absolutely fantastic that feeling is in fashion right now. Yes, many people are feeling things that are based on wrong beliefs, and that’s a problem! But the problem is their wrong beliefs, not their wrong feelings; their connection between thinking and feeling is an important one, and while it is totally legitimate to correct wrong beliefs, we must recognize that their feelings are not right or wrong at all. Feelings are objective, in the sense that we cannot choose or change them – they just exist, as a natural response to our experience and beliefs. We cannot criticize someone who is overly sensitive for feeling, nor can we dismiss their feelings without dismissing them as human beings. Our feelings are part of us, and rarely subject to our rational choices.
What we can do instead is recognize a person’s feelings, validate them as a legitimate response to their perceptions and experience, and then address any misperceptions they may have that led to their emotional response. Because not only is it rude and dehumanizing to dismiss or ignore or ridicule someone’s feelings, it’s actually counter-productive – because no matter how much we talk about the primacy of logical reasoning, in a stressful situation our feelings guide our actions more than our thoughts do. When we experience great stress, our prefrontal cortex (the decision-making, logical, rational part of our brain) shuts down and we go into a sort of auto-pilot (often referred to as fight-or-flight mode), and we take actions that are based on things much deeper than thought – but our feelings are still powerfully present even when we can’t think straight. So the next time someone asks for a trigger warning, take it as a sign that they would prefer to remain rational rather than being plunged into the high-emotion low-rationality state of recurring trauma.
My son is a constant reminder to me of the importance of recognizing and validating the feelings and desires of others. Toddlers are experiencing many emotions, sometimes for the first time and always uncontrollably, and it often causes them to act out in ways that they would actually not prefer. When a kid has a tantrum, it’s almost always because they’re feeling something and they don’t know what to do with it; telling them that you know what it is they desire (“I know you want that toy”) is usually enough to calm them down, because they know that being understood helps them to understand themselves. That’s the brilliance of human community: we know by being known, and we deal with emotions by sharing them with others. We call this compassion. All of this is just as true for adults as it is for children.
So be careful with the affections of others, and recognize that their emotions may precede, but certainly inform, their understanding and knowledge. Just as our own integrity depends on the interplay between our beliefs, affections, and actions, so too our health, relationships, and ability to communicate also depend on all three things. So rather than pitting thinking against feeling, recognize that it is only by recognizing someone’s feelings that you can find out what they really think.