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July 20, 2016

Do Our Feelings Shape Our Facts?

“The jungle is your head—can’t rule your heart;
a feeling’s so much stronger than a thought.”
(U2, “Vertigo”)

[Before we begin, a warning: this may step on your toes a bit. And it’ll take you about 3 minutes to read, if you dare.]

Yesterday I told you about my 19yo daughter reaching out to me while babysitting the other night. For no specific reason, she was frightened for her safety and for the safety of the kids. My daughter knew the facts about her situation (an intruder would be extremely unlikely), but the facts were not impacting her feelings…enough. She wanted her father’s voice, and the reassurance that comes with our lifelong relationship.

In a similar way, many people are frightened about their safety today. Most of us, I would say. This has been a brutal summer of terror and injustice, highlighting some very serious systemic problems in our world. Depending on the day, we are feeling anywhere from sad to terrified to angry. At best, if we watch the news all day, we just feel uneasy and insecure.

What’s fascinating, though, is how these feelings are actually, for the vast majority of us, not in line with the facts of human existence today. Like the fact that the average human being in the world today is safer than at any time in history. Or the fact that fewer people live in abject poverty than ever before. Or the fact that despite the news, violent crime, unemployment, and death-by-disease are all trending downward.

By no means do I want to suggest these facts should temper our conversations about our current systemic problems. God forbid. I only mention them to highlight that our feelings are so much more powerful than our thoughts, and our feelings are hardly ever completely shaped by the facts we know.

What shapes our feelings, more than facts, are the personal relationships we value the most. These relationships, in turn, shape our knowledge of and belief in the facts. My daughter, for instance, knew the facts, but hearing those same facts in my voice gave them new meaning. You’ve experienced this when you totally rejected the facts reported on the news until you heard those same facts in the voice of your spouse, or best friend, or colleague.

This is why it is so crucial we learn to manage our relationships well—these relationships literally shape our view of the facts of life in this world.

This is also why, if we don’t want to be ruled alone by our feelings, it is so crucial we develop personal relationships with people who see things differently from us—our relationship with them gives us more reason to objectively listen to another view of the facts.

Here’s the rub:
—Who’s your friend of a different skin color that can give you their view of the facts about race?
—Who’s your friend in law enforcement that can give you another way to look at the facts about police abuse?
—Who’s your Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish friend that can show you how they see the facts of religious extremism?
—Who’s your liberal/conservative friend that can tell you a different set of facts, as they see them, about the role of government and immigration?

Our feelings will always be more powerful than facts, but managing our personal relationships can help us see things a little more objectively, and make us feel a little better in the meantime.

Peace begins with pause,

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