Saturday, May 05, 2012

Emotions (II) Illusion vs. Wisdom

Western post-enlightenment culture provides us with poor guidance for understanding the place of emotion in our lives. We steer between two extremes: the Cartesian exaltation of linear thought, which rejects emotion as a distraction, and the dregs of nineteenth century romanticism, which leads us to see emotion as a source of free wisdom. I believe both these attitudes badly miss the truth: our emotions do indeed provide us with an important path to wisdom, but it doesn't come free. It takes more than just listening.

The best theory I have ever read about the origins and uses of what we call emotion comes from Rupert Ross's book Dancing with a Ghost, which talks about the complex and subtle pattern matching our minds perform. Ross writes of his early work as a fishing guide, when he learned to match the subtle sign of weather, season and temperature with his knowledge from past experiences. In his description of the process, Ross notes the step by step methods we more often associate with "reasoning", and the Cartesian methods for discovering information simply do not have the speed necessary to deal with life in the wilderness. But that speed comes at a cost: where we can step back through a line of reasoning to discover where we made an error, the kind of non-linear process Ross speaks of does not permit that. We can choose to trust what we feel, or not. For the First Nations people who live on the land, the environment provides continual instruction. Those of us who live in a constructed media environment do not experience the immediate truth of the physical world. We receive too many messages manipulated, or invented outright, mainly for the purpose of manipulating us. In other words, we take in a lot of garbage. And as the old computer saying goes, when garbage goes in, garbage comes out.

If the old romantic idea of simply trusting our feelings ever made sense, our current media environment, stuffed with lying political rhetoric, deceitful advertising, and subtle manipulations of every kind makes that impossible today. At the very least, if we hope to gain wisdom from our emotional reactions, we need to check them both against what we know about the world, and against other things we remember feeling.