In both college and graduate school I took classes in which the work of Rene Descartes was discussed – the “Father of Modern Philosophy” best known for his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” And though I’d hardly pin all responsibility directly on him, this emphasis on thinking, at least as superior to feeling, has gotten us into trouble.
What if we understood and believed this, instead? “I feel, therefore I am.”
Without going too deep into the history of philosophy, Descartes larger work was in response to the Scholastic Aristotelian tradition of his time; one that was, at least from his perspective, prone to doubt given a reliance on sensation as the source for all knowledge. He wanted and created certainty; irrefutable and almost mechanistic ways of understanding ourselves, God, and the larger, existential questions of life. And though I’m hardly advocating a return to the world of Aristotle, still…
What if sensation and our hearts were understood, undeniably, to be the source of all knowledge? NOT our thoughts?
I had a long, tearful conversation with my eldest daughter a week or so ago. We were watching the end of Season 2 of Downton Abbey when one of the main characters died of preeclampsia. She cried and cried and cried. As she began to breathe a little slower and feel a bit more calm, I said “It’s not really about the show, is it Emma?”
“No, mom. It’s not.”
“What’s it about?”
“I just don’t like it when good people die.”
“Of course you don’t, sweet girl.”
Her head in my lap, our conversation continued. In the midst, I heard a 16-year old girl struggling with the recent death of her aunt, with a haunting sadness over strained relationships with friends, with an ever-waxing-and-waning sense of self worth, with a deep-and-angry awareness of life as unfair. But I also heard the incessant hiss of an inner voice; one that was giving her a good talking-to: “I’m too emotional. I feel out of control. I’m not OK. My feelings are too much.”
Every now and then I hear the word, “think” and am immediately transported to my own teenage years. I can remember my dad saying, “Think, Ronna Jo!” and it’s palpable. I cringe internally, just the slightest bit. I feel edgy and insecure. Sometimes a lump even forms in my throat. All over one little word. He was, undoubtedly, trying to teach me something or get my help with a particular task and, like all parents are wont to do, would get impatient. Truth-be-told, I’ve heard myself say the same words to my girls a time or two. And I cringe yet again . . .
I wonder what it would have been like to hear him say, “Feel, Ronna Jo!” Will I offer the same to my daughters?
These, whether blatant or not, are the predominant truths we’ve learned, internalized, and lived by:
- Think instead of feel.
- Trust thoughts over feelings.
- Thoughts = logical. Feelings = illogical.
- Thoughts are safe and feelings are dangerous.
- “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Yes, I am aware that nothing is either/or, black/white. But as a parent, as a woman, as a human being, I wonder: What if feelings were allowed, given room and air to breathe, were seen as guide and source of wisdom, and even took the lead? Would our thoughts then stop fighting us and fall in line behind our hearts?
In my own experience, it is an endless wrestling match. The rational part of my brain tells me what I should think and even what I should feel – objectively, logically, even obviously; but my heart will not comply. And sadly, too many times, the way I’ve “managed” this and let my thoughts win is to shut the feelings down.
Even typing that last sentence makes me want to weep, scream, and shout; to stand on a soapbox or a mountainside and call all Feeling-Beings to me, assuring them that what they feel is good, that what they feel can be trusted, that what they feel is the source of a wisdom-before-the-dawn-of time.
There’s no shutting feelings down – mine or yours. They are a strong, dauntless, and beautiful force-to-be-reckoned with (thank goodness). They wait, often in the shadows, and catch us unaware – sometimes when we hear a particular word or watch a TV show (last night: the heartbreaking end to Season 3). But no matter what prompts them or from whence they arise, I am learning to let them speak to me. “I see you. I hear you. I feel you. You will not be hidden. You will not be silenced. You will not be ignored. You are welcome here. You are honored. You are true. What do you long for me to know? What do you long for me to understand? And what do you long for me to allow or receive?”
The case could probably be made that much of this is inherent in gender; that women struggle with this duality in unique and potent ways, far more than men. And of course, to some degree that would be true. But I think feel that men have their own pain around all of this – enculturated to not express their feelings; to build, develop, and trust their thoughts; to distrust their emotions and their heart. All of us are less for such – as is our world.
I’ve been asking myself a particular question for days: “What do I know, with certainty, right now?” And as I ponder the words, the scenes, the list itself, I recognize one common thread: where even momentary certainty resides, my head and my heart are aligned. More, please.
So I take a deep breath. I sit a while longer with my daughter(s). I enter back into the fray of my own anxieties and heartaches. I laugh. I remember. I cry. I hope. I pray. I doubt. I love. I hurt. I wonder. I worry. I trust. I drink champagne. And I give myself permission to feel, to feel, to feel.
This I know, with certainty, right now: My thoughts are in service to my feelings; my head is in service to my heart. Not the other way around.
I feel, therefore I am.