Listen to Your Feelings – they might have something important to tell you

One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.

The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.

The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.

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Customized Communication in a Virtual World

The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.

Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.

Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.

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The Virtue of Vulnerability in an Age of Sentimentalism, Stoicism and Cynicism

This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.

Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.

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Listening: the Cornerstone to Healthy Relationships

couple listening to each otherLearning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.

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Unbundled Reality and the Anti-Poetry of Pokémon Go

Not long after digital books started becoming readily accessible on the internet, I began hearing that one of their advantages was that they enabled key sections of a book to be extracted from the larger context. Instead of having to read the whole book, a person can use search tools and navigational aids to jump straight into the best sections.

What really caught my attention, however, is when I began being told that eventually the context of a book, even a work of fiction, might pass into irrelevancy as an anachronistic relic of our literary past. Instead, sections of literary works might come to be organized according to new fluid contexts that emerge organically from algorithms based on user preferences. In an article on the post-literary mind, Mark Federman called this emerging model “the UCaPP world” (UCaPP stands for “ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate.”) Federman described this as

“a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.”

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Social Media Breeds Envy

In my earlier blog post ‘Studies Link Facebook With Social Comparison and Depression‘, I shared the report on two fascinating studies published last October in the ‘Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.’ These studies showed a correlation between Facebook use and the tendency to compare ourselves to others and thus become depressed. A new but related study was published in April this year, again in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. This study focused on the role social media plays in fomenting envy in our hearts.

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Studies Link Facebook With Social Comparison and Depression

Among my circle of friends, I’m always the last one to find out the news. Why? Because I don’t read Facebook. Anyone who is a “friend” of mine on Facebook may find that hard to believe, given how active I appear to be. But my Facebook activity is rather like C.S. Lewis’s relation to the newspaper: the fact that Lewis never read the newspaper didn’t stop him from publishing articles in it. I mainly use Facebook narcissistically to encourage people to read about the latest things I’m thinking about (ironically, I’ll probably post this article on Facebook), and to promote my articles so I can earn more money. I’ve felt bad about this, and sometimes think I should spend more time “reading the news feeds” to give other people more attention. But after finding out about some studies last year, I’m no longer going to feel guilty for not spending hours and hours on Facebook like my friends do.

woman on FacebookThe studies, published last in the ‘Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,’ showed that time spent on Facebook correlated with depressive symptoms for both men and women. The article, which you can download as a PDF here, tells how it wasn’t just ordinary Facebook viewing that was linked to depression, but Facebook viewing in which social comparisons took place. “Social comparisons occur when people automatically contrast themselves with others on abilities or attributes they deem important.” This type of comparison often happens on an unconscious level that we are not aware of until it’s pointed out to us.

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Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In January 2009, the Washington Post announced that it would be dropping the stand-alone Book World section of the paper’s Sunday edition. Book World had been created in the 1960s and was one of the few remaining stand-alone sections for book reviews in American newspapers.

The trend had been in process for the preceding decade. In 2000, Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, commented, “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer.”

A few months after McGrath penned these words, the San Francisco Chronicle decided it would no longer be publishing its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage, which had been based on the understanding that books are newsworthy. The Chronicle had to reintroduce the Datebook after protests from book lovers, but eventually reduced it to just four pages.

In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. They Globe’s decision was followed by numerous other newspapers expunging their long-standing tradition of offering serious book reviews.

In 2007, Steve Wasserman reflected over the developments of the previous seven years in a fascinating article for the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commented that

“Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely.”

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.”

“Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week.… In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on the newspapers for dropping their separate book review sections. Newspapers, like any business, need to make money to survive, and that means giving customers what they want. The American public has gradually lost the interest it once had in reading, and hence in book reviews. This was confirmed by statistics released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which Wasserman cited in his article:

“In June 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twenty years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play, or poem.”

Why are so many people choosing not to read? Have people changed? Not really. In the eighteenth-century Samuel Johnson noted that “People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Although it has always been a problem that people will not read if they can be amused, throughout most of human history people have not had immediate access to amusing things, and so they read. This was especially true in America in the mid nineteenth-century, which I am told was the height of any reading culture in the history of the world.

Things have changed since then, and now anyone can have an internet connection in their pocket and instantly access an unlimited array of amusing things.

Wasserman hinted at these shifts when he pointed to “the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization… Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to.”

He went on to observe that

“the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

“These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed.”

Wasserman’s observation that our visually furious culture is “hollowing out the habits of attention” remains central to understanding the decline in book reading. To truly appreciate a book requires many skills beyond mere literacy, including habits of attentiveness that seem to be under assault by so many different aspects of contemporary life.

As our habits of attentiveness are increasingly eroded, the interest in books and book reviews is lost. Yet I hope to show in future posts that much more is lost than simply an interest in books the disciplines necessary for reading them. What is also eroded is a richness of soul, a sensitive imagination and the type of listening skills that are necessary for healthy relationships.