Daniel Lowe shares with us the second of three posts which were originally shared with his community via the school newsletter.
Part 2 – Use the Force, Luke!
“Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer, is something wrong?”
Anyone with any exposure to the Star Wars universe knows what comes next. Amid the chaos of the battle, Luke hears the wise counsel of his recently departed mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi, who whispers, “Luke, trust your feelings.” Luke then switches off his targeting computer and — using the Force as his guide — fires his missiles and destroys the Death Star. I can’t help but wonder just how much this moment, and the prevailing narrative of the Star Wars universe, has helped to shape the psyche of our day. Whether it is the NCIS protagonist, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, insisting that we ‘trust our gut’, or Ernesto de la Cruz from Coco singing “The rest of the world may follow the rules, but I must follow my heart”, the message is that our feelings are our best guide in life.
But let’s go back to Star Wars for a moment – the prequal episodes specifically – where we follow would-be hero Anakin on his journey to becoming uber-villain Darth Vader. “You don’t need guidance, Anakin. In time, you will learn to trust your feelings. Then you will be invincible” says Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Writing for Patheos magazine, Terry Mattingly observes, “No wonder Anakin Skywalker seems so confused. Every time the Jedi apprentice turns around, a spiritual master tells him to trust his feelings, search his feelings or follow his feelings. Trouble is, the young super-warrior in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” is a tornado of feelings. He feels love. He feels hate, ambition, desire, frustration, fear and fury.” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/tmatt/2002/06/trust-your-feelings-darth/
Which leads us to the second of Jonathan Haidt’s ‘three great untruths’, “Always trust your feelings.”
The first great untruth that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” leads to an unhelpful desire to shield young people from possible ‘trauma’. In Haidt’s words, “By over-protecting our children we are setting them up to be weak, to be more easily damaged, to be more easily discouraged”. The language of safety and trauma is now applied to experiences and topics where it never would have been before. Increasingly, students conflate trauma with emotional discomfort. But emotional discomfort is simply not the same as trauma. Now add to this an unhelpful elevation of feelings as the most accurate way to make sense of our experiences and you have a recipe for disaster.
So, what is wrong with always following our feelings? Feelings are not always bad. Emotions are an intrinsic and wonderful part of being human and Haidt is not suggesting that all emotions should be ignored. From a Christian perspective, we only need to look at the Psalms to see the full range of emotion being expressed – anger, fear, joy, love, anxiety, depression etc. And in the Gospels, we see Jesus experiencing the full gamut of human emotion. Humans are created as emotional beings. The danger lays in giving too much weight or putting too much trust in our emotions. Here are two reasons Haidt suggests for why always trusting your feelings can be unhelpful:
Emotional reasoning can have negative consequences. It often leads to negative cognitive feedback loops. Individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression often start from a place of low self-esteem. And because they feel so badly about themselves, they selectively seek out “proof” to confirm their negative self-beliefs. These “proofs,” in turn, further reinforce the original negative beliefs.
One way they do this is through catastrophizing, turning minor setbacks into disasters.
Another symptom is generalization: taking one setback and re-casting it as a comment on one’s entire experience in life. A third symptom is mind-reading, assuming (nearly always falsely) that others have a negative opinion of them, without any proof.
You may well have seen this played out in your own home. Imagine the child who comes home declaring in great distress, “everyone is laughing at my haircut!”. After some sympathetic conversation you establish that one or two people made a comment in class about funny haircuts that may or may not have been referring to your child. By the end of the day, in the child’s mind, “everyone is laughing at their haircut!” Their distress might be real, but it has been brought about by faulty emotional reasoning.
Microaggression and Misperception
Another dangerous manifestation of emotional reasoning can be seen in the phenomenon of so-called “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are minor, often inadvertent slights that members of minority groups are often exposed to in the course of daily life. Too often, emotional reasoning causes us to misperceive the world around us. For young people, emotional reasoning can cause them to feel intentional slights where there are none and strengthen the desire to shelter themselves from emotionally triggering experiences—even speech that they merely disagree with. “…students are encouraged to follow their feelings; if they feel offended by something then they have been attacked. They’re supposed to not question those feelings,” Haidt says.
The great untruth is that we should always trust our feelings but the counter for this is not that we should never trust our feelings. The end goal is not to suppress or crush or even invalidate the things our young people feel. Instead, we want to help young people to understand what is, potentially, a counter-cultural message that their feelings do not need to rule them and in fact they might sometimes be deceived by them. Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” If we don’t learn to deal with how we feel we will manipulate ourselves and leave ourselves open to being manipulated by others.
A great way to help young people evaluate and regulate their emotional reasoning is by modelling it ourselves. If you catch yourself heading down a negative feedback loop or potentially overreacting to something, make a conscious effort to verbalise for your child the thinking process that you go through in recognising and moderating your response. Let them hear, as much as is appropriate, how you manage your feelings. And if you see them getting caught up in faulty emotional reasoning, help them to pause and reassess. Essentially, you want to say to them, “you’ve switched off your targeting computer, is something wrong?”
“Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love” (Psalm 26:2-3)