Feelings

First of all, this old but updated essay is not about that stupid song, “Feelings.”

When someone asks me how I feel, I usually respond with the always lame, “I feel good,” but without the James Brown inflection. If I were to give an honest answer, I’d have to think about it for ten minutes. Besides, nobody really wants to hear, “I feel full of complex emotions today,” or “My teeth itch,” or “Being here makes me want to take a nap.” Such responses might force me into conversations I really don’t want; either that, or I’d get a blank stare. It is better to stick with convention, however dull. Social interactions are less complicated that way; so I say, “I feel good.”

Twice during my career in business, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. I won’t go into the whole analysis, but here is a brief commentary on feeling vs. thinking:

Feeling: “People who have a preference for feeling judgment are concerned with whether decisions and actions are worthwhile. More personal in approach, feeling types believe they can make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation. Feeling types are concerned with personal values and with making decisions based on a ranking of greater to lesser importance—what is the best for the people involved. The feeling function places high value on relatedness between people, and feeling types are often concerned with establishing or maintaining harmony in their relationships. As they use and develop their feeling function, feeling types often come to appear caring, warm, and tactful. Remember, in type language, feeling does not mean being ‘emotional;’ rather, it is a way of reasoning….”

Thinking: At the other end of the scale, “People who have a preference for thinking judgment are concerned with determining the objective truth in a situation. More impersonal in approach, thinking types believe they can make the best decisions by removing personal concerns that may lead to biased analyses and decision making. Thinking types seek to act based on the truth in a situation, a truth or principle that is independent of what they or others might want to believe or wish was true. The thinking function is concerned with logical consistency and analysis of cause and effect. As they use and develop their thinking function, thinking types often come to appear analytical, cool, and tough-minded.”

I recall sitting in business meetings, often hearing someone state a definite opinion about how something should be structured or how a strategy should be implemented; then he or she would occasionally add, “I really feel strongly about this.” I always noticed how this expressive comment had a way of either stopping dialog or prolonging it. But nobody ever challenged the remark with, “so what do your personal emotions have to do with the merit of what we’re discussing?” I guess we were all too socially aware of how mean spirited that would sound.

I also remember a psychologist’s description of feeling vs. thinking at the Center for Creative Leadership: A feeler is someone who spends $5000 for open-heart surgery for his or her fourteen-year-old cat. A thinker is one who gives his wife an ironing board for their first anniversary because she needs it; or better yet, he gives her the money to buy one. Both times that I took the test, several years apart, I had a strong preference for thinking. In other words, my feeling side had some blind spots. When I first learned this in the mid 1980’s, I sarcastically thought, “gee, I’ve always enjoyed the sensitive guys acutely in touch with their feelings—people like W. C. Fields, Wallace Beery, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Sam Peckinpau, and Elmore Leonard. I guess I misunderstood the concept.” It was also pointed out that just because someone has a preference for thinking doesn’t mean that it is smart thinking.

In my defense, I’m quite capable of legitimate sentimentality—death or the pain suffered by loved ones. I get choked up over moving pieces of music like Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, or certain old hymns, like For the Beauty of Earth (sung, with difficulty, at my sister’s funeral in 2004) and spirituals like There is a Balm in Gilead; or old jazz standards such as My One and Only Love, At Last, or Roberta Flack’s The First Time; Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now; almost any torch song performed by Diana Krall; and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. A visit to Gettysburg, years ago, was an emotional experience—no crying—just a somber spiritual day at a very special place. On the surface, Gettysburg consists of grassy fields with monuments scattered around the place. But what is now a top-notch tourist attraction was, and perhaps still is, hallowed ground. There were fifty thousand American casualties during the three-day battle of July 1-3, 1863. When I saw, read and heard the stories of what happened at Little Round Top, The Peach Orchard, and other battlefields, it affected me.

The same thing did not happen to me on a visit to Little Big Horn in July 2006, where the Department of Homeland Security, as it existed in 1876, led by Sitting Bull, Chief Crazy Horse, and other Lakota, Cheyenne and Crow, wiped out the arrogant General Custer and his contingent of the 7th Calvary. I was more discomposed watching the great thoroughbred Barbaro break his leg in three places trying to run the Preakness two months earlier.

The occasional moving film might strike me emotionally but I can’t readily think of one. I remember once sitting in a meeting where, as an icebreaker, the leader asked everyone to name their favorite movie. I said, Lonely are the Brave, a small Kirk Douglas vehicle from 1962 that out of his sixty-six films, he claimed to be his favorite. It’s based on an Edward Abbey book and today it would be considered dated, corny and superficial. But I always saw tragedy—the loss of individuality and independence to modernity. Emotionally, perhaps I was born fifty or a hundred years late.

I distrust exaggerated sentiment, and much of it is. I really don’t hate people. I just don’t like their excesses…and spare me the zealots. Allan Bloom wrote about “conspicuous compassion” designed to bring about “nihilism with a happy ending.” And the word compassionate somehow has become a euphemism for “more heavily-funded.” In reviewing the film, The Ant Bully, Stephen Hunter perhaps reworked Bloom’s phrase and coined, “promiscuous empathy.” He defined it thusly. We identify with anything: birds, bees, flowers, trees. We weep for all. We make a fetish of our compassion and treat our feelings as if they’re ideas. This contagion holds that there is no us and them in the world, that we are all one big us. The fact that the world then makes no sense is of no matter to those who hold this point of view; far more important is how happy it makes them feel, how moral, how superior…” Oh, the vanity of the emotionally incontinent, wearing their sentimentality on their sleeve, in effect saying—“see, how deeply I care, how loving I am?”—over some triviality. It cheapens the real tragedies of the world, like the ongoing genocides and the despicable treatment of women in various parts of the world, or someone dying alone, not knowing if anybody loves them.

Political correctness is an example of promiscuous empathy—it’s a maudlin attempt to create harmony by suppressing the obvious, sacrificing truths on its own alter. We are taught to avoid stereotypes. But they exist because there are general conditions that support the notion, not 100%, but enough to make the generalization valid. That is, there is truth being told. Finally (to get off this point), there is a variation of the Parable of The Good Samaritan, which illustrates the perverted nature of “promiscuous empathy:”

Upon finding a severely beaten person unconscious in a ditch by the side of the road, the Samaritan exclaims, “How terrible! The person who did this must be in great pain!”

Dennis Prager, the Jewish radio talk show host says, “We live in the Age of Narcissism. As a result of unprecedented affluence and luxury, preoccupation with one’s psychological state, and a hedonistic culture, much of the West, America included, has become almost entirely feelings-directed.” In assessing what position to take on a moral or social question, the question asked most often by the narcissist is: “How do I feel about that?” not “What is right?” or “What is wrong?” Everyone gets to choose his or her own morality. A good example of this is the position of abortion advocates. Prager says, “The worth of a human fetus, whether it is allowed to live or to be extinguished, is entirely based on the feelings of the mother. If the mother wants to give birth, the fetus is of incomparable worth; if the mother doesn’t, the fetus has the value of a decayed tooth.” No higher standard exits beyond personal “choice.” Prager argues that making one’s feelings subservient to any higher standard of morality is uncomfortable and narcissistic people don’t like their comfort disturbed. I’m not sure Prager is correct with his example, though. The decision to abort could just as easily be cold logic: “I can’t afford it,” or “I don’t want this baby because it will mess up my social life.”

William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” I call that discernment, the healthy kind of discrimination. Rhett Butler said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I call that objective frankness. Shockingly, with many of life’s matters, my preferred response is quite close to the fictional Mr. Butler, “I don’t care.” Any feeling I might have is negative or neutral—some things are just not worthy of attention. I call that “minding my own business” or “live and let live,” attitudes that are the antithesis of vengeful, officious, protective, territorial, meddlesome, and coercive. There is a good deal about which I don’t care: feng shui, aromatherapy, tattoos, body piercing, who is wearing what, Lindsey Lohan’s rehabilitation, J-Lo’s love life, Cher’s adolescent life, the latest hair styles, Rosie O’Donnel, the sexual escapades of sports stars, Lady Gaga, what Hollywood or sports celebrities think, debates on breast feeding, Sex in the City reruns, Katie Couric, Tom Cruise, The British Royal family, self-congratulatory award shows, Terrell Owens, Paris Hilton, Cricket, camel racing, American Idol…I could go on.

There is much I do care about: The seashore, the rolling green hills of Midwestern farmland where I grew up, the Tetons, Monument Valley, the French, English and Italian countryside, the Greek islands, Hawaii, and the beautiful country where I live. I’d rather be in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth, but as a compromise with my wife, who prefers reasonable access to civilization, we settled in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies upon retirement in 2005. We chose the country, five miles from a quaint village at 8000 feet, near world-class skiing and fly-fishing streams. I like to exercise but dropped the obsessions with running marathons in the late 80’s, mountain biking in the early 90’s, and tennis in the late 90’s. I get exercise, but mostly so I don’t have to buy fat pants and so I can indulge in good wines now and then. Yet there is satisfaction in doing disgustingly healthy stuff. I bicycle, hike the hills, jog a little, work out at the gym, ski, and fly-fish. I haven’t played tennis in four years and I never thought I would so easily give it up. I like to rub my wife’s feet and have her rub my head. We like each other, still, after forty years. It’s a good thing. We see each other more now than we ever did when we were both working and I traveled half the time. I love my family deeply, but then that is not necessarily a defining virtue; the deceased Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar loved his family too.

I wouldn’t change a thing. I like seeing the dear and elk roam on our property. We occasionally hear a bobcat and there are active black bears and mountain lions in the area. I prefer the company of a few friends and family to large social gatherings. I read a lot, stretching my mind with the articulate companionship found in books, and I write. I also like inarticulate companionship found with dogs and horses. I care about my neighbors, my friends, my church, my community and I think about friends lost to distance and other priorities with a sense of melancholy. While I could easily become a recluse, I know it’s not healthy, so I work at becoming engaged. And it is, for me, work. We know most of our neighbors and have become involved in social activities within the community because we care about being a part of itI could go on.

I cared about my work but after almost thirty-nine years with the same organization, and being retired since November 1, 2005, I have an odd feeling about it. I don’t want to come across as an orphan child commenting on his or her previous life at the orphanage, but I harbor no sentimentality regarding my former career and subsequent retirement. I worked; they paid me. And while I care about the people remaining there—my goodness, I’ve even joined facebook and I’m having fun reacquainting myself with those on the same social network! But I’ve moved on and, no doubt, they have also… hopefully all of us in healthy ways. My predominant emotion is that I am feeling blessed in my abundance. In retiring, I took the Outward Bound approach to experiential education: just do it; reflect on it afterwards. Perhaps this brief examination into the subject of “feelings” is one minor effort in that regard—at least, that is what I think.

In closing, someone famous (and my mother) said, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

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