emotions can be a distracting drug

So, I seriously get annoyed with some aspects of liberal culture, especially where it intersects with religion.  I’ve written about this before, many times, so I don’t need to sat too much (and yet, I will…).  But it is a thing which grinds my gears fairly frequently, including today when I found this good criticism of Francis Spufford’s article at Salon.com by professor Ceiling Cat himself.  Go read Jerry Coyne’s post.  As usual, he makes good points.

While reading the post, however, I was thinking about this argument, which I have heard before, about how religion is a spiritual or emotional experience.  Some atheists, while being smug and disrespectful (as we are wont to do) will compare religion to a drug, and there is some justification for this crude comparison.

But more generally, emotions act in addictive manners in more arenas than religion.  It is certainly something I am familiar with.  The the poly world, there are sometimes discussions of NRE being addictive, which leads some people to pursue new relationships almost unceasingly.  This sometimes leads to situations where one starts to neglect those with whom they share intimacy, simply due to spending time pursuing more and more novelty.

As a Borderline, I am familiar with the desires to pursue the thrills of both intense joys and of (the illusion of) control.  The highs are great, but the pretend goal of maintenance of those heights, and avoidance of the lows, is delusional. In my worst memories, I have images of having gotten the emotional reaction my anger–a result of fear in the absurd pursuit of being loved–was after, which is accompanied by the fleeting, deceptive, addictive pleasure of it all.  Fleeting because a few seconds later it is clear that not only will the reaction not lead to them loving me, but that they will probably never want to be close to me again.

And yet the mind craves it, all too often.  All too often because ever is too often.

And so here we are, back to religion, with Mr. Spufford arguing that we new new atheists are wrong because we do not get that religion is about the emotional experience and not primarily about truth.  The turn-around, here, seems to be that it is Mr. Spufford who does not understand.  I, a life-time student of religious history, theology, and its relationship to culture know all too well how emotion can lead us to belief.

Spufford says:

It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

which is, of course, reminiscent of the old Catholic idea of belief prior to understanding (which, if memory serves, was Thomas Aquinas’ dictum.  Correct me if I’m wrong).

This idea is not inspirational.  I am not led to see religion as more understandable because of feelings people have.  Good feelings do not imply a good worldview, moral sense, and especially not good ideas.  I am not less critical of you and your religion  because you have pleasant feelings, which religion provides you with.

And then I think how often, we as humans (even within the atheist community) rationalize terrible ideas, policies, or moral worldviews based upon feelings.  How much is misogyny the result of genuine feelings? How much is homophobia based upon feelings? Etc.

And the feelings don’t have to be bad ones.  Perhaps some misogynistic MRA out there is motivated by a genuine desire to right the wrongs where the system is actually slanted away from men? Well, that instinct is generally good, but without a larger perspective to compare those instincts and feelings to, those feelings (if they are, in fact, good) are insufficient.  Because while motivated to right a structural wrong, many MRA’s miss the larger point that the vast majority of structural injustices in our world are stacked in the favor of men.  Our friendly MRA, and his good feelings which lead him to beliefs contra-feminism, are not sufficient.

Similarly with religion.  Spufford and his family go to church, have good feelings, and so they believe the things believed by the people who are there when they have the feelings.  How absurd is that? We, new atheists, know that you have good feelings while singing about Jesus.  We are glad you are capable of good feelings, we want you to have good feelings, we just want you to get your head out of your ass and realize that the time and place of where those good feelings happen may have nothing to do with the feelings per se.

Or, if they did, then perhaps those feelings are not worth wanting anymore.  Perhaps good feelings are not sufficient reason to keep doing something, you selfish asshole.

At some point, this conversation about truth/experience, science/art, etc comes down to moral principles; things like authenticity and integrity (which I am teased about, by more than a few people, for sharing with hipsters apparently.  I was doing it before there were hipsters, so there…:P).  These moral principles are structures by which we decide how to go about daily living.  Do we care about other people, our environment (immediate and/or global), and what is true or don’t we? Are our good feelings we have at church (or whatever selfish pleasure we are pursuing) more important than the larger picture of our lives and those close to us?

In short, are your jollies more important than all the things that you could do besides them?

Are your emotions more important than the effect they have on the world around you? Are they more important than mine, your neighbors, etc?

Spufford, and others who make this argument, seem to essentially be saying that the good feelings that religion give them are more important than the larger question of whether religion is harmful to society as a whole–let alone whether they are true. They seem inclined towards associating their religion with emotional and spiritual self-improvement, rather than a larger cultural phenomenon with consequences upon history, power structures, etc.  Because their religion only makes people feel good, unlike the fundamentalists who just hate everyone.  Excuses.


Feeling good is great.  But there is a reason I don’t want to try heroin.  I have a feeling I will like it, if I tried it.  That isn’t the question.  If I try it, my intelligent mind will find ways to rationalize using it more, despite the detrimental effects it will have, upon extended use, on my life and the world around me.  Spufford’s article is a rationalization of his addiction.  It is a human behavior so common, so ubiquitous, that we forget that we need to step back and apply skepticism, rationality, and logic to the world to make sure we are not getting caught up in our addictions.

Emotions are not inherently bad.  Emotions are an integral part of the tool-kit of decision-making and enjoying life.  But when we see people so blinded by their preferences, biases, etc that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture, we need to be able to say that it is time to stop being led around by our religious dicks.

Fear is a compelling illusion

If you meet me at a poly meetup, for the sake of Lord Xenu and all the minions of Cthulhu don’t ask me how we deal with jealousy or other such banal questions.  Instead, ask yourself how you would do so.

I know.  Life is scary.  You saw your boyfriend check out that cute girl at the bar.  Your boyfriend is currently making out with that saucy minx in the hot tub.  You think that maybe your partner is having a good time, without you, on their date right now.  Maybe in a bedroom somewhere.  Hell, you might just be worried that the person you are in the current process of sexually pleasuring might prefer the way another person does it.  They might be thinking about the flirtatious sex bot at the party you just came from.  You know, the one that triggered your insecurities about your own imperfections.

All of that shit is in your head.

And it’s in my head too.  I worry whether I do enough to keep my partners happy.  I worry about all sorts of things related to insecurity and fear.  But I realize, even while suffering emotional throws of uncertainty, that it’s all an illusion.  It’s all stupid, terrible, lies told by a madman who pulls the levers of fear in my head.  I hate that madman sometimes.  But that madman is me.  And I don’t want to hate myself. So, instead it tell that madman to cut that shit out, because it isn’t helping.

He doesn’t usually listen to me, though.

I understand why people create boundaries, rules, and restrictions in relationships.  I understand the impulse to want to stake a claim of ownership, or at least of permission, around your lovers so that this madman inside your head does not go crazy and start making you feel terrible and afraid.  Monogamy, and polyamory with restrictive rules around things like sleeping over with another partner, not getting too emotionally attached, or something as simple as no sexual intercourse, makes sense from the point of view of accommodating this madman.

But those restrictions don’t solve the problem because that madman is, well, unreasonable.

Your partner really wanting to have sex with someone, but only being “allowed” to make out, touch, and get worked up with them while not doing what they want does not make you feel better.  That’s an illusion.  If your partner come back home from a date, does it matter exactly how much sexual contact they had with some other person (or people?) Isn’t the exact point of pain there either at the desire itself or your own fear? What does it really matter if they did what you were afraid of? Is the act itself the problem?

No.  That’s all bullshit.  When I’m feeling uncertain or jealous about what my wife or other partner is doing with someone else, the problem is not what “base” they got to (oh man, how stupid is that shit?), but my own fear of inadequacy.  And my concern with what parts of their date was touching what part of them is not the location of the problem.  And no matter how much it hurts, how many emotions flare up and demand to be attended to, the problem is illusory and stupid.

Whether a matter of social training about the possessiveness of relationships, an evolutionary/genetic set of dispositions, or something else, it’s all an illusion.  The emotions are real, but the emotions are lying to you about the source of the pain.  It’s a cognitive sleight of hand (and a good one, I’ll admit!), and even us poly people are susceptible to it.  It’s very similar to “religious experience;” the experience really happened, but the experience is lying about its sources. It’s all in your head.

Fear is the mind killer.  Emotions are powerful, and sometimes exist for legitimate reasons, but it is what we choose to do with those feelings that matters.  Jealousy might make you want to punch the guy hitting on your partner, but that guy is not the source of the pain and fear.  A sense of injustice might make you want to rant and rave against a clueless person (whether racist or not), but that person is not the source of the injustice.  In those (and many other) cases, emotion can take us off the path of being the best people we can be.  Fear, like depression, lies.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating any sort of Vulcan-esque repression of emotion or even a complete distrust of our feelings.  Emotions are wonderful, powerful, and useful parts of out human experience (when used well).  I just want us to realize that there is a thing called rationalization, illusion, and a set of cognitive red herrings which compel belief in untruths.  Emotions can convince us we are being reasonable when we are not.  So whether it is possessiveness, righteous indignation, or many other forms of emotion which may compel action, we need to keep in mind that we might be being lied to, by our own brain.

Anger, fear, jealousy, and all the other emotions that are often called “bad” sometimes exist for good reasons.  I will not tell anyone they cannot be angry, annoyed, etc.  I will say that they should be careful with how they use those weapons.  if you are not well trained in the use of a weapon, you are likely to hurt yourself or a loved ones with it.

Emotion, Memory, and Quality

I met my wife just over 3 years ago.  On the anniversary itself, which was just a couple of weeks ago or so, she reminded me that it had been 3 years since, and we shared a nice moment between us and I reflected on how much I appreciate having met her.  Of course, we met at almost the same time as an event which shook me to my core, leaving me more depressed and emotionally raw then I have probably ever been, and which had stuck with me for many months (and to some extent, years) afterwards.

I have written about the events in question previously, and even had a now non-existent post about the event itself a few days after, but I found further evidence, just now, for how much emotion affects one’s perception of reality.  I made a video, about 3 years ago now, that was intended for an ex girlfriend of mine to see (I don’t know if she ever saw it).  It was a video which was created in a fever of creative energy based upon a dream I had woken up from.  The creation was an extremely emotional event, and was cathartic in many ways, even though I didn’t understand it then.  No, I will not embed that video here.

Upon finishing this video, I saw it as a sort of great achievement; it moved my deeply and I was unable to delete it from my hard drive even long after it was clear to me that the lost relationship was never to be restored.  The video involved a song–which was part of the dream–in the background, and ever since then that song has had an important emotional affect on me.  In a sense, this video was a great achievement, as it was the first step I took in healing from this loss, and it was not long after that Ginny and I were quite obviously moving towards being together as a couple.  She is a woman who saw me at my worst and helped carry me out of the darkness.

So, tonight while sitting around Polybar Galactica with Gina having some drinks and talking about quantum mechanics, chemistry, and relativity (like you do), the song in question comes up on my computer, which is randomly playing music for u while we pretended to know what we were talking about.  The song, as soon as I notice it, punched me in the stomach (figuratively), and I used my phone to skip to the next song (because Polybar Galactica exists in the future where you can control your computer with your phone) so I could allow the emotional tumult to pass by not listening to that beautiful but painfully mnemonical song (a link just in case you just have to know what song it is).

But then, right after Gina went to bed (because she has a job that involves getting up early and shit) I have this intellectual curiosity to watch this video, which is still on my hard drive.  I wanted to see if I would still feel as vulnerable and sad watching it now as the last time I watched it, which may have been 2 years ago or so.  I was prepared to be emotionally ruined for a few minutes, reminded of the pain that engulfed my life 3 years ago, but that’s not what happened.

So, here’s what did happen.  I smiled and even laughed.  Not comically, like at the gross inadequacy of the video-editing skills (although they are mediocre at best),  but because the images in the video reminded me of good times.  I remember having fun with and loving this girl who tore my heart out so long ago.  I remember her fondly, despite all that happened, and I was able to watch this video without the pain I prepared for.  And I was able to reminisce about some times long gone, with only a tough of bittersweet (which I think is appropriate).

But, perhaps more interestingly, I noticed how not-awesome the video was.  It made me grossly aware that my previous opinion of the quality of this video was intricately and intimately tied to the emotions involved with it.  Emotions which have changed, faded, and perhaps forgotten.  Emotions have a real affect on both memory and perception, and now that the raw emotions have faded away, the quality of the video was perceived, tonight, as appropriately mediocre (at best).

Ginny and I back in Atlanta, after I healed some.
Ginny and I back in Atlanta, after I healed some.

But what has not faded over time, but rather grown, is the other thing that happened 3 years ago.  Ginny, I love you dearly, and I am happy that you are my wife. Thank you for all you have done for me, and all you continue to do.  I live a charmed life.

And thank you, Gina, for sitting with my at Polybar Galactica while talking about things we have no idea about while I make you chocolate martinis.  Also, for being awesome and stuff.

I want to leave with a direct quote from what is on my Google calendar from the date that the event happened.  I don’t remember when I added this note, but it is true, even for this heathen:

Saturday, January 16th, 2010:

All hell falls upon me…and an angel was there to catch me before i fell into its depths



Also, if you missed this previously, you need to read this post (which also mentions the evil Seana event, which is why I was reminded of it right now), because it is me channeling Gina’s hilariousness in a way that I am not sure I can replicate again.  I made myself laugh. Wait, i do that all the time.

You know what? Never-fucking-mind!