How do you feel? This might be the most frequently asked question in our day to day interactions with other people. It’s something we value extremely highly, but what does it mean?
Why, for that matter, does the question need to be about our emotional state, rather than our cognitive position? Why is it we only seem able to conceptualize ourselves by the endogenous drug reactions we elicit in our brains? These questions are clues to perceiving the overwhelming nature of addiction. We’ve become so enthralled with “how we feel” that it has become our motivational focus in life – the pursuit of enjoyable emotions and the temporary (and deeply dishonest) reprieve they provide from the harshness of our existence when we successfully distract ourselves.
How a person feels in any given moment is governed by how they choose to utilize their emotionalism in that moment. How a person chooses to utilize their emotionalism is governed by their held moral values and their emotional expectations. These are specialized forms of beliefs that we use as rules to tell ourselves how we should feel in response to various stimuli. Every fact and idea to which we’re exposed creates in us memories that we then turn into beliefs about the fact or idea in question by filtering it through our preexisting beliefs and expectations. It should be self evident that corruption of the process by internalizing false beliefs about fundamental aspects of our existence expresses itself as the wide variety of mistakes and errors we are so prone to making. For example, we cannot accurately evaluate risks while refusing to accept the nature of death, just as we cannot respond to ourselves with self honesty and composure while we refuse to accept our agency over our emotionalism and our inherent moral burden to develop its honest use.
Our held moral values are an expression of conscience, which has physiological underpinnings in our brains. This suggests to me it has enough importance that we selected to prioritize the development of this aspect of cognition over others. Moral values are the rules by which we determine not just real from imaginary, but also our highly subjective take on what is right and wrong, including how we “should” feel. Because our society has developed to in large part govern itself by emotional expectations and performative displays of “appropriate” emotionalism, many of our held moral values reflect these expectations, and so emotionalism has become deeply rooted in our expressions of conscience.
I don’t think this is a healthy state for us. I suspect this pressure and coercion to conform to emotional norms that we exert over ourselves and each other is a contributing factor to our overall decline due to the way it reinforces our emotional addictions. We no longer practice conscientiousness for its purpose – the enhanced survival of the individual and the group – but rather for the emotional rewards we have arbitrarily attached to how we value relevant ideas.
Our emotional expectations, both of ourselves and of other people, need not necessarily be rooted in moral beliefs. Emotional expectations can be entirely arbitrary, or they can serve another person’s interests rather than the person believing and practicing the behaviour associated with the expectation. A great deal of the collection of expectations that in part forms our identity is passed down to us from our parents and other caregivers when we are children.
This aspect of our upbringings shapes who we are by way of imposing rules on the ways we allow ourselves to think and feel. Many of these emotional expectations are dishonestly derived for purposes such as the immediate convenience of the parent, and such beliefs will not serve the child well later in life. As a species we give very little forethought to how we teach our children. We insist that we have the freedom to teach them what we want, but we are seldom self-critical of the beliefs we hold prior to burdening the next generation of people. Most people don’t sufficiently care what is real. Most people seem to think childhood moral lessons amount to “Don’t steal, don’t swear, and do what adults tell you!” if we’re lucky. Some people may add some basic sharing and caring stuff, but I don’t think many people at all teach their children to investigate morality themselves, to understand why it’s important and what it can do, and so they can accept early in life that these human qualities are self determined in spite of and not because of the baggage of expectations universally foisted on us by society.
To be fair, I don’t think many people really know or accept these ideas, so it would be impossible for them to teach them to their children, and this is part of our problem. We are isolated in increasingly fragmented communities and even with internet connecting many of us, few people have the time or energy to rediscover themselves in this way without some kind of help or impetus. It doesn’t even occur to us that it’s possible to change on these scales while our lives are suffused with the static of everybody’s expectations.
A fundamental fear of ourselves is responsible for this, too. For the way we clutter our lives with meaningless tasks, often nonsensical tasks, in an ever increasing effort to distract ourselves from ourselves. The more alienated with ourselves we become the more vulnerable we become to the exploitative expectations of other people. It’s all because we refuse to do the work necessary to accept ourselves for what and who we really are and the limitations of our existence; the Three Greater Denials.
I wonder what humanity would look like today if we had all been taught as children to accept the following facts:
- Death is real and permanent; there is no persistence of mind after death.
- We are not fundamentally different or better than other forms of life; we’re sapient animals with a distinct genetic lineage, just like every other species on Earth.
- We are not separate or different from or better than our environment. The matter we borrow to comprise our bodies we relinquish just as freely. The matter we hold onto now doesn’t care what form it takes; it just bonds and dissolves according to its chemistry. The significance of the act is left to the fleeting perceptions of the living human brain.
- We are free to choose and this means we must live with the memories of our mistakes and the impacts of the harm we cause. Pretending otherwise only causes further unnecessary suffering.
- Our freedom of choice extends to how we interpret and express our individual emotionalism. To abuse ourselves with dishonest emotionalism inflicts suffering that the people who care for us must, in turn, suffer themselves.
This is the inherent immorality of self abuse – not just that it’s an abuse of the person inflicting it on their self, but because it’s an abuse of those with whom we interact, too. Even if the other people in question only witness our suffering, even if they don’t interfere.
A significant part of the damage done by this process is not what one might think – the emotions suffered when witnessing suffering – but rather the gradual shaping of each other’s false beliefs to worsen or increase in severity our emotional addictions. Misery loves company, for example.
- Our moral burden is self created by our awareness of ourselves and our environment. We understand the harm we can cause because we understand what it is to sustain being harmed. In our sapience we are also free to reject these findings any time we wish, but that’s not to suggest we should, only that we do. And in every case we do, it can be traced back to an act or acts of dishonestly derived emotionalism fueling somebody’s false beliefs.
- Death is real and permanent; there is no persistence of mind after death.
Every moment of every day we calculate a kind of sum or running total of our beliefs and expectations as we are reminded of them by our experiences. We cannot consciously hold so many ideas in mind at one time, so we tend to focus on what’s in front of us, most. On these scales, asking a person how they feel is asking them to calculate an answer to one of the most complex human questions there may be – how are they dealing with existence, today?
Between the inherent complexity of the human predicament and the lattice-work of emotionally driven false beliefs we commonly value it does not surprise me that we often claim not to know how we feel in a given moment. It’s less a case of not knowing than it’s a case of not wanting to do the mental math required to calculate a satisfactory answer – and this is usually due to ongoing conflicts we value within ourselves.
So why do we reduce it down to meaninglessness by robotically asking and answering “I’m good, thanks!” or “Pretty good, how about you?” when internally we may be tearing ourselves apart trying to make it make sense. I just answered my own question. This, too, is an act in avoidance of ourselves and each other. We have commonly reduced the way we greet each other in day to day life to a parody based on how we have decided we are expected to feel.
So, how do you feel?
Is it honest?
Is it useful?
Is it how you want to feel?
Why? (And then cycle back to “Is it honest?”)