When Renee was a child, her family had to move around a lot for her father’s work. Every few years Renee found herself in a new community, a new school, and having to make new friends from scratch. It was difficult for Renee to make new friends since she always expected to be uprooted again. Not surprisingly, Renee had become very shy and suffered from mild forms social anxiety.
When Renee was seventeen, her family finally settled in a small town in Colorado. Having been assured by her parents that they wouldn’t be moving again, Renee desperately wanted to make friends in the new community. She especially wanted to have a boyfriend. At the same time, however, Renee was scared of forming relationships.
A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.
Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, the doctrine of resurrection functioned as a kind of footnote in my thinking while my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.
My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective which deemphasized the importance of the physical world. Some of my earliest writings had argued that during the Old Testament the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world but in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (i.e., non-physical). What happened in the material world is unimportant to God; the best we can hope to do is prepare for the next. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.
When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,
- conceptual and contextual thinking;
- the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
- the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
- the ability to put knowledge into schemas.
In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.
“Why do I need to remember this when I can always look it up?” This is a common question among the younger generation, who often struggle to see the value of education in a world where all knowledge is quickly becoming digitized. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer partly answers this question by exploring the connection between memory and understanding.
“…even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
…memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.”
Last week I got a biography from the library about the relationship between Viktor and Elly Frankl, titled When Life Calls Out to us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. In the book’s introduction, the author has a discussion of Frankl’s opposition to the Human Potential Movement that became a dominant feature of American discourse in the second half of the twentieth-century.
“Frankl was a major voice in humanistic psychology–a loosely connected array of approaches that arose in the United States in the mid twentieth century. It counteracted the dehumanizing tendencies of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which predominated at the time, and offered a more optimistic and less deterministic view of human nature. Frankl anticipated the distortion of humanistic psychology into the American ‘human potentials movement..’ That movement asserted that we all have a right to personal happiness as well as virtually limitless potential to attain it…. At the extremes, the human potentials movement has left many in the clutches of an individualism that plays a role in the loss of community, in the breakdown of marriages, and in boredom, promiscuity, loneliness, greed, addictions, abuse, and other forms of violence….
To Frankl, the human potentials movement and its promise of boundless individual growth and happiness were a pip dream from the start. To him it was a wishful fancy to gloss over the guilt and pain and death that go with being human, to sidestep our personal responsibility to others and the world, to overlook the capacity of people to suffer courageously–even to bring good out of unavoidable adversity–and to ignore the fact that all human beings are capable of extraordinary evil as well as extraordinary good….
When it comes to suffering, self-fulfillment teaching tends to evade, deny, or trivialize it as something abnormal and fleeting. Frankl not only underscored suffering as a normal part of human experience, but he asserted the real possibility of finding meaning in it when it cannot be avoided. In the Holocaust he himself faced incomprehensible evil and loss–after that he was never able to offer a quick fix, to suggest seven easy steps to perpetual joy, or to spell out the secrets for health-wealth-happiness. Rather, he summoned the human spirit to its triumph of love, in service, and even in suffering.”