Everyone has a voice, and a choice to use it well, use it poorly, or not to use it at all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Think/Feel Issue

Upon returning to America from Nepal, I had a new perspective on America and much of what goes with it. Cut grass smelled sweeter, my pillow was softer, and it was almost impossible for me to enter a house without removing my shoes. I talked about some of these things in a former post. Apart from these changes in me and my perception, I also noticed some changes in America itself that had taken place while I was gone. Some were good, and some were bad. Today we will discuss one change that is bad. It may have been going on even before I left for Nepal, but I only noticed it when I came back: people talking about their thoughts or perceptions as if they were feelings, saying "I feel like" instead of "I think".

This habit is concerning to me. Language is a very fluid thing, determined by the practices of people who speak. The English language has lost a great many wonderful words, because we have ceased to use them, or used them incorrectly for so long that nobody remembers what they used to mean. Love. Charity. Cynosure. (Ok, maybe that one deserves to be forgotten). "Feel", and perhaps indirectly, "think", seem to be close on their heels  - not forgotten, but twisted through misuse.

Before I jump all the way in, allow me to confess: I have caught myself saying "I feel like" instead of "I think" several times. When I catch it, I try to correct myself, but I am not above reproach in this matter.

Now, is it really necessary for me to correct myself? Is there anything harmful about saying "I feel like" instead of "I think"? Is there anything better about thoughts than emotions?

The answer to that last question is no - I don't think thoughts are better than emotions, they are just different. However, that is not the issue here. While emotions and thoughts, as a whole, are equally valuable, it is sloppy to call one thing by the name of something else. That brings us to my first two points in my effort to show that it is not good to talk about thoughts as if they were feelings.

Point # 1: Thoughts and feelings are different.
This one shouldn't require much explanation - we know it intuitively. Ask your romantic interest if saying "You make me feel like I never felt before" makes him/her feel the same as if you said "You make me think like I never thought before". Perhaps you could try "feeling" your way through your next exam. It seems clear, but it is necessary to go ahead and clearly define our terms in order to proceed.

Merriam Webster's defines "feel" as...
a : to undergo passive experience of  
b : to have one's sensibilities markedly affected by

Other parts of the definition cover the physiological side of feeling, such as feeling someone's hand, feeling hot. The important characteristic about feeling is that it is passive, it is something that happens to you. It is not possible to make yourself feel emotional love for someone, or to make yourself feel itchy. Furthermore, feeling is by nature subjective. If you say "I feel hot", that does not mean it is hot. If you say "I love Murphy", that does not mean that I love Murphy too. Feelings like love and hate are subjective, not objective. Finally, people do not usually choose to feel something in order to achieve something else. Feeling may lead to thinking or action, but it is not generally an intentional connection.

Merriam Webster defines "think" as...

1. to form or have in the mind
2. to have as an intention
3.   a.to have as an opinion
      b.to regard as

You can check out the rest of the definition here.
The important characteristic about thinking is that it is active - it is something you do. You can choose to think about mountains or about rock climbing or about poetry. Depending on the level of stress or obsession, it is sometimes hard to stop thinking about something, but it is possible. Like feeling, thought is subjective. However, thought deals generally with determining objective truth - with the best way to solve a math problem, or the proper course of action to take in a relationship, or whether or not God exists. The answers to these dilemmas are objective, not subjective. Finally, thinking is a means to an end. People think about things in order to get things figured out, or to know things absolutely, or to determine which course to take.

I sent a rough draft of this post to one of the most intelligent people I know. She pointed out something I had overlooked, which I think is part of the reason it is easy to get thought and feeling confused: thoughts and feelings are often closely connected. As she wrote, 'When you say "I feel hot", you do "think" that you are hot as well. When you feel sad, you are normally thinking sad thoughts.' She is right - thinking about certain things will make you sad. To further confuse things, people often say that a thought is happy or sad - "Think happy thoughts!" - because certain thoughts bring about happy emotions. In fact, the thoughts themselves are not inherently happy (the same thoughts on a different day might bring about a different emotion).

So, it is clear that to feel and to think are very different things. Feeling is passive, while thinking is active. Feeling is by nature subjective, while thinking is the subjective attempting to arrive at the objective. Thinking is a means to an end, while feeling is not. So, though they are often closely connected, thinking and feeling are not the same thing.

Point #2: Calling something what it isn't is incorrect and unwise.
Sloppy speech leads to sloppy thought, which leads to sloppy action. There are only a few instances when people purposefully mis-label something in their speech. They may do so as a joke, or with the intention to deceive. Otherwise, they are simply making a mistake without knowing it. For instance, if you say that Mt. Everest is in South America, I will know that either you are trying to be funny, or you are trying to deceive me, or you are just mistaken about where Mt. Everest is. There is no other option.
Here is the key: in normal conversation, in which you want to be taken seriously, none of those three are good options. If you are joking, people won't take you seriously. If you are lying, you will not be trusted. If you don't know, it will show, and you won't get very far. So, if you want to be taken seriously, call things by their proper names, and use the proper terms. 

Someone will say that such a discussion is fine for things that really matter, but a simple difference between think and feel does not warrant such attention. I disagree, and I'll show you why.

Point # 3: Calling your thoughts by the name of feelings applies the value of feelings to your thoughts. I think people say "I feel like that is a bad idea" instead of "I think that is a bad idea" because they don't want to come across as harsh or judgmental. When I hear someone say something like that, I cringe, because they have just given their statement the same weight as if they had said "I feel cold" or "I feel tired". Those are perfectly valid statements, but they are not imperatives - they do not necessarily require anyone to do anything, nor do they suggest that anyone else should be feeling the same thing. The end result is that, while the speaker avoids sounding harsh or judgmental, they also fail to give their statement any weight. They rob their own words of power.

Point # 4: Treating your thoughts like feelings may cause you do use feelings as thoughts were supposed to be used. This is merely a suspicion I have, and it would be difficult to support empirically. However, given the vast number of people making decisions based solely on emotion these days, I don't think it is a preposterous theory. Imagine: Arnold constantly says "I feel like" instead of "I think". He often expects people to treat his "I feel" statements as if they were "I think" statements. Consequently, he soon begins to treat them that way himself. He begins to think that feelings should be acted upon. Pretty soon, he has forgotten the differences between thoughts and feelings, and is treating his feelings as if they were thoughts. He quits his job because he feels like a failure. He marries Jane because she make him feel super great. He sells his car because of a case of indigestion. Oh what a sorry state Arnold is in.

My intelligent friend said another thing I had not thought about: "Acting upon or making decisions based off of feelings can be bad or good...sometimes acting on feeling is good. Sympathy and compassion are feelings." I can hardly believe I missed this point, but it is so true. In the past, I have said that decisions and actions should not be made based on emotions. Rather, I said, emotion should be used as an indicator that something worth thinking about is going on. Consequently, it is not wise to act solely on emotion. I have said that in the past, and I think it is generally a good principle, but now I need to add that it is not wise to act solely on thought. If you make a decision with thought alone, there is no room for feelings like compassion, empathy, or love. Those are things that should be guiding principles for all our thoughts.

Here we go - Application Station: If you are having an emotional/visceral reaction to a situation, or a sensory perception of your environment, and want to tell somebody about it, you can say "Hey Billy Jean, I feel...". In every other case of mental activity that you want to share, use a different word. It has occurred to me that perhaps this whole mix up is because people just don't know enough words any more. (Another possibility is that people are actually kind of rusty in the area of thinking in general). Here are few words that are similar to think to keep you on track: remember, consider, postulate, suppose, intend, perceive, expect. 

If you are one of those many who use "feel like" instead of "think" many times each day, it will be a hard habit to break. But it will be worth it. First of all you will be correct. Second, you will not be caught up in the sloppy speech --> sloppy thought --> sloppy action progression. Third, people who understand the difference between thought and feeling will take you seriously.

Happy trails!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Personifying the Wilderness

If you enjoy reading and love the wilderness, you probably like reading about the wilderness. Some of my favorite books are about the backcountry, books like Treasures Beneath the Sea, Endurance, and Everest the Hard Way. Reading books like this are the next best thing to actually being in the backcountry.

Each outdoor adventurer has a different philosophy on the outdoors. Some go out to find themselves, while others go to lose themselves. I enjoy hearing these different philosophies, because they are Cosmic Snail Trails - examples of the subjective giving us clues about the nature of the ultimate objective truth.

I see a pattern in books on the outdoors, especially in books on mountaineering expeditions. The authors almost universally attribute human characteristics to the mountain they are attempting to climb. Even the ancient Tibetan and Nepali name for Mt. Everest personifies the mountain: both the Tibetan name Chomolungma and the Nepali name Sagarmatha mean roughly "Mother Goddess of the Earth". More modern climbers tend to be less charitable. To many, Everest seems to be not so much motherly as hard, petulant, and resentful, often unwilling to be climbed.

What is this human tendency towards the personification of the physical world? Is there something to it? The Hindus, by and large, would say that it is the proper recognition of the god(s) that exists in everything. Staunch atheists would reply that, whatever it is, it is a false perception. What is the Christian reply?

Paul did not fully explain the personification of nature, but he certainly wrote about it:

"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."

What are we to make of this human (and even Biblical) tendency to personify nature? 

I believe it is an indicator that God is perceived more clearly in the wilderness than elsewhere. God is the ultimate "person" - there is nothing more personal than Him. It makes sense that He should be perceived in His creation - that is the whole premise of the CST Theory. From there, it is a short step to conclude that the less there is to distract us from God, the more of Him we will be able to perceive. When fewer man made objects there are to take up our attention, more of our attention will be free to attend to God. As we come to the end of ourselves and face the limit of our own abilities, we begin to perceive the characteristics of God in His creation.  His power, vastness, beauty, and variety are evident in what He has made.

God put these characteristics there for a reason. I do not pretend to understand all of that reason, but a part of it is that creation is intended by God to be a testament to all humankind - a testament that points us towards God, and condemns us when we reject Him.

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

This is the root of why going into the wilderness is so powerful.  God displayed his invisible qualities in visible form in his creation.

The plainest conviction that comes from this is to get out into it! If you don't believe in God, go into the backcountry and experience that which you cannot explain. If you want to believe in God, go into the backcountry and allow Him to make himself known. If you are a Christian of fifty years, who has attended seminary and shepherded churches, go into the backcountry and learn things all your books written by human hands can not teach you, as you marvel at God's invisible characteristics laid before your eyes in visible form.