Monday, June 20, 2016

The Giver, Feelings, and God

I watched The Giver last night, a movie about a society where people are numb to the consequences of their actions. Through the use of chemicals and behavioral modifications everyone has been prevented from internalizing the rightness and wrongness of their decisions, and as a result the people who live there are totally devoid of emotions. This isn't to say they're all psychotic sociopathic raiders who run around dismembering each other like it's Mad Max--no, no. Their society is very clean and precise. It just means they are numb to their own individual loves and hatreds, having been drained of all morality. To them murdering under-performing children is no different from trimming fingernails because they have no strong emotions about murder one way or the other.
Oh sure they still feel things; they feel heat and cold, hard and soft, which leads them to use the word comfortable to speak about a chair that fits their body well, but they don't have regret for an ill conceived action, nor do they pine, nor do they sorrow, nor do they draw from a wellspring of joy to make decisions based on. Instead they reflexively do what the supreme leader tells them to without further consideration. Something like a hive of bees or a very well programmed robots. The founders of their society set out to create ultimate equality and succeeded by draining the meaning from everything. 


But it's not total uniformity since there's a single exception. An advisor, a man who still remembers the old ways to better evaluate the impact of new policies. He's different because he doesn't just feel, he has his emotions to guide him, help him make sense of new proposals. In the most critical scene of the movie this man sits his replacement down at a piano and demands he embrace emotions. Not feelings which are more or less sensory data, but emotions. The deeper things. Feelings which have been remembered, internalized.

It made me think of my kids. When they were really young feelings were all they had, they constituted their whole world. A bit of candy is all the pleasure there is and can be, a stubbed toe turns their whole life into misery. They can't store the information for later because there is no later and there was nothing before to compare it to. They live in the experience of feeling whatever is happening now. Just like the goal of Big Brother from the book 1984. One minute Oceana is at war with Eurasia and has always been, the next at war with Eastasia and has always been. Whatever is in front of Winston is all there is, was, and will be.

I on the other hand have accumulated a number of experiences, and have a deep seated core of emotions by which I evaluate new information and feelings. Before making a judgement on what I'm experiencing I run my sensory data through the grid of my core convictions. And I've noticed that as I've gotten older my emotions make up more of my reaction to things and the sensory data makes up less. It's different even from a few years ago. I suppose it would be fair to say I've become harder to the world. More inflexible. But I'd hesitate to put it that way exactly because it's a much more positive thing than that sounds like. It's just that things I used to care about seem unimportant now, and as a result I'm happier as a disposition regardless of my feelings at the moment. I've reached a point in adulthood where I can no longer be tyrannized by every little feeling or social pressure which demands I orient my outlook based on what they suggest to me, and let me tell you, it's glorious. Becoming impassible to feelings may sound bad, but it's actually pretty awesome. It's not that I stop feeling things--on the contrary, I feel more deeply than I ever did--it's just that I control those feelings now, they don't control me. I hope I'm not telling this badly, because what really I'm trying to say is that the older I get the more impassible I become and the happier and more emotional I get. A little counter-intuitive I know, but I suspect everyone has the experience that the older they get the more their emotions show outward and the less feelings penetrate into the core personality.

It's an interesting model, framing our lives in terms of feeling vs emotions isn't it? And of course after grasping it I immediately put it to work on understanding God. It gives an interesting result, so kudos to you Giver, I'm indebted to you for offering me a fresh perspective on something I've been thinking about off and on for a few years. I'm even beginning to think it's categories of feeling and emotions is a better idea than passion versus emotion.

So can God feel? No, in this sense. He doesn't have hands to touch with, or eyes to see with. He doesn't hear. It cannot be that a beautiful sunset is pleasing to His eyes like it is ours, because He doesn't experience it the same way we do. His transcendence absorbs all the information at one time, but it doesn't do it through sensory apparatus. He doesn't learn and store the experience for later because He already knows everything. Whereas we experience daylight and then sunset and appreciate the transition and store the experience, God doesn't do that. God doesn't use the word comfortable or warm. What are those to Him? What would He know about how difficult things are for us? He isn't saddled with our limitations. (Until of course He was).

But does He have emotions? Yes, in this sense I think so. He has a deep reaction to things. He has a basis, a moral center by which He regards events. An action of ours can bring His moral disposition to the forefront, and it might look to us as though He's changing His mind, but the thing is actually reacting to a firm fixed emotion of His. He actually has a deeper emotion sense than anybody by an order of magnitude. He has a moral conviction so perfect that it's almost simplistically and holistically a part of Him. By being completely free of feelings He's also completely emotional, totally independent from external imposed changes. He is not however a great numbness devoid of regard for things--exactly the opposite is true. He loves and cares more deeply than anyone or anything for that reason.

This model of feeling and emotion intuitively feels right (forgive the expression). But the interesting consequence of it is that even though God is impassable, He is still the most emotive and expressive person in the universe. I'd have to think this over a little more, but the idea shows promise. It's a very straightforward model that seems to display a lot of horsepower.


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