Nothing More Than Feelings
By A.D. Freudenheim  

4 July 2005

Feelings: 1a. The sensation involving perception by touch. b. A sensation experienced through touch. c. A physical sensation: a feeling of warmth. 2. An affective state of consciousness, such as that resulting from emotions, sentiments, or desires: experienced a feeling of excitement. 3. An awareness or impression: He had the feeling that he was being followed. 4a. An emotional state or disposition; an emotion: expressed deep feeling. b. A tender emotion; a fondness. 5a. Capacity to experience the higher emotions; sensitivity; sensibility: a man of feeling. b. feelings Susceptibility to emotional response; sensibilities: The child's feelings are easily hurt. 6. Opinion based more on emotion than on reason; sentiment.[1]

Feelings: we all have them, though we sometimes try to deny them. While they alone do not define us, feelings do comprise a significant part of our intrinsic character, in tandem with other elements like our ability for abstract reasoning. They may be with us from birth, or shaped by or in response to the world around, or both. Moreover, they are drivers – motivators – essential for each person to understand and establish her/his own desires and goals, whatever they may be.

As a matter of politics and statecraft, however, feelings and emotions typically get short shrift. In the history books and news outlets that chronicle the passage of time (or some parts of it, anyway) writers look for rational reasons, for decisions that can be attributed to particular, external causes from which there will be measurable effects – or to decisions made based on beliefs and “values.” Even in the field of historical biography, the emotional often remains elusive, since the writer must rely either on an individual’s own recorded history or impute feelings onto their subject – and even the former may be less than reliable.

Feelings, when they are noted, are usually cast as a negative or at best irrational influence – “emotions are high” (whatever that means) or “the crowd responded emotionally” – and seen as contributing more to nefarious acts than positive ones. A read of any of Shakespeare’s plays about the history of the English monarchy will only affirm that most emotions are not portrayed as particularly noble. Similarly, in contemporary American politics, issues that have significant emotional components, such as belief in god or “values,” are cast only in those terms, with a proto-rational facade draped over them: research on stem cells is bad, or fighting terrorism is good, because of one’s values, not because one feels that stem cells are all-too-human, or because the effects of terrorism are literally frightening. (The great notable exception to this may be former President Clinton, whose famous line, “I feel your pain,” gave strength and currency to the idea that how people felt mattered as an element of how they acted as citizens.)

Yet our world is unquestionably poorer for this attitude – because the feelings and emotions are there, whether we deny them or not, and because they inform and affect our experience as humans. Moreover, if we made a better effort at understanding and respecting feelings as a natural and valuable part of being human, we might be able to bring this understanding to bear in addressing many of our problems, from complex issues of foreign policy to local debates about housing, health care, and job creation, to simple interpersonal disputes.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example: a longstanding feud between two populations that has as much to do with an emotional attachment to a place (and an attachment to the ideas and history behind that place) as any practical, logistical, geopolitical concerns. If the Israelis had more respect for the feelings of the Palestinians, for the legitimacy of their emotional desires as a people, they might have been more willing to compromise, negotiate (about all those practical and unemotional things one can debate across a table), and achieve peace. The same is true for the Palestinians, for whom the denial of Israelis’ emotional connection to history – and particularly the sense of horror and tragedy with which many Jews were left at the end of World War II – has been virtually an article of faith. It is as if by denying each others’ feelings, in a sense denying their enemy’s essential humanity, they could achieve the victory each side wants.

Similarly, we have typically approached socio-economic problems such as the need for (or reform of) welfare from a rational, policy perspective, to be developed and implemented as a mechanism to help support people in need. At a practical level, the recipient of welfare may need a job, or assistance finding affordable housing; but this may be treating the symptom, not the disease – ignoring the the underlying emotional disturbances that may prevent someone from holding a job. The much-debated role of religious organizations in these areas of social policy is a kind of attempt to rationalize and tackle some of the emotional issues that may rest under the surface of these problems; they may be successful precisely because, in confronting the intangibles of faith, religion can channel a person’s energy and gain focus, where other “practical” solutions cannot. Sadly, these programs are often doomed by the combined forces of the proselytizing zeal of their adherents – too often unable to resist making deeper demands of faith – and by those “rational” secularists who fear the power of the very faith-based emotions that might help people in need.

Therein lies the biggest challenge: to find ways to understand, and respect, our own feelings and those of others, on an individual as much as a societal level. One of the best aspects of feelings, of emotions, is that they are endlessly renewable – they may change and evolve, can grow stronger or weaker, and can overcome the rational mind as often as the rational mind decides to ignore them in turn. As a result, feelings can lead each of us in different directions at different times. Just look at the change in Israel, and the policy decision to withdraw from Gaza. Prime Minister Sharon confronted (and continues to face) a tremendous emotional challenge in removing Jewish settlers from this disputed land. Perhaps this seems to some a cold and calculating political maneuver. Yet it must be more than that, since his own perspective on holding on to the Occupied Territories has changed over the last few years, even though the “facts on the ground” have probably changed very little. The death of Arafat, too, is overrated as a policy issue – yet its emotional impact is tremendous. In setting up the plan for a Gaza withdrawal, Sharon may also galvanize the Palestinians into re-examining how they feel about sustaining this conflict.

It may not be true mutual respect, but it is a start. Let us hope it feels good, too.

[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000   Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.