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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Donald Trump, Theories of Emotion, The Country We Love, and Christianity

Sanders supporters and Trump supporters clash 
Saint Francis by Francisco de Zurbaran 

 There are many theories of emotions. I will talk about two: the hydraulic theory and the "practice makes perfect" theory. I am using the term "practice makes perfect" for the purposes of this post.

Genetics also play a huge role in human emotions; some people are hardwired to be more happy, or to be more sad. And there are other theories. But for this post I will contrast the above two points of view.

In the hydraulic theory, emotions are like physical things inside the body. They can build up. Their building up is dangerous to the body. The body must "let them out." One must cry, yell, pound things, to express unexpressed emotions.

In the "practice makes perfect" theory, emotions are not like physical things, and they are not stored in the body. Rather, people come to feel what they have practice in feeling. They come to feel the feelings that they encourage, and that they are encouraged to feel.

The "practice makes perfect" theory is diametrically opposed to the hydraulic theory on this point: the hydraulic theory says that expressing emotions releases them. The more anger you express, the less anger you have.

The "practice makes perfect" theory says that the more anger you express, the angrier you are.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Twelve Step encapsulates the "practice makes perfect" idea in many slogans:

"Bring the body and the mind will follow";
"Fake it till you make it";
"Act as if."

That is, if you want to be a certain thing, including someone feeling a certain emotion, you "act as if" until you convince your emotions to come along for the ride. If you feel afraid, acting brave will make you brave. If you feel hateful, acting loving will make you loving.

In this theory, if one expresses much anger, one isn't actually releasing a finite amount of anger in the body – in this theory, there are not stored up emotions in the body. Rather, a person, through repeated, habitual behavior, is teaching the body to be angry – or happy or sad or fearful or brave.

Conversely, as is often pointed out, merely choosing to smile, even if one doesn't feel one has any reason to smile, can change the mind's chemistry and contribute to a lightening of mood, however minor and temporary (see here). Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, ""Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

The "practice makes perfect" theory appears in literature. In George Orwell's masterpiece 1984, citizens of a totalitarian state are encouraged to feel anger during daily exercises called "two minutes hate." You can read more about that here.

I value being exposed to a variety of points of view. When I have no one else to debate with, I debate with myself. That may sound like a joke unless you are Polish. We are a contentious people. In September, 1939, World War II broke out when Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia at the same time. After the war, our "allies," America and Britain, betrayed us to Stalin at Yalta. We know that hate, betrayal, irrationality and death can come from the left, the right, or the middle.

My mother was Slovak. Her father was a coal miner. His heavily accented political theory could be summed up in two words: "Everybody crook."

Igjugarjuk, an Eskimo shaman quoted by myth scholar Joseph Campbell, said it more poetically. "The truth lies far from men, out in the great emptiness." A mere mortal, I may never reach absolute truth, but I want to get as close as my puny powers allow.

I have Trump, Clinton, Johnson, and Sanders supporters among my Facebook friends. I read everything they post. I want to know what a variety of people are thinking. I want to hone my take on the truth against their truths.  

In recent days, Donald Trump has been tanking in the polls.

No sooner did Trump take his nosedive but my Facebook page was colonized by 1984 style "two minutes hate." In a scene from a Sci Fi movie, suddenly dozens of Facebookers were posting post after post that depicted Hillary Clinton as the worst person who ever lived, up to and including an ally of the anti-Christ (Yes, really. Google it.) One respected Facebook friend posted a meme stating that Hillary Clinton supported the Jews in their alleged deicide of Jesus.

I had previously looked forward to my morning plunge into Facebook as a way to connect with fellow humans near and far: their families, their pets, their memories, their prayer requests. Some politics, but not exclusively. Now merely perusing my Facebook feed left me feeling an acid burn on my skin.

Encounters with anger were not limited to a passive perusal of my Facebook feed.

Facebook friends I'd had for years, who had previously been courteous to me, exploded.

I was called many names. The most astounding and troubling to me: "immigrant." I was born in New Jersey.

I was especially troubled by posts from Christians referring to Hillary Clinton as Hitlery, Killary, Hildebeast, etc, Being a Christian is a challenge. The presence of others on a Christian walk is supportive and uplifting. Seeing Christians brazenly violate Matthew 5:22 and Exodus 20:16 rattled and depressed me. It was a Young-Goodman-Brown moment.

Many Facebook friends who are Trump supporters announce that they are angry. Numerous polls support my subjective impression that Trump supporters are angry. "Trump Supporters Are Angrier and More Risk-Accepting Than Clinton Supporters" claims one such poll; see here.

At least one Trump supporter on my Facebook feed says that this is all right and good. He voices a hydraulic theory of anger. Older white men, he says, have been stepped on and horribly abused. (This man's Facebook photos reflect a comfortable and successful, upper middle class life.) Because they have been so abused, older white men must lash out and express anger at those abusing them: women, immigrants, the poor, minorities. Once this anger is released, everything will be better.

I doubt this hydraulic theory of Trump supporters' anger.

I put more credence in the "practice makes perfect" theory.

The more anger people express, the better they get at expressing anger, the more they teach their body to be angry.

Jesus said, "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34). That sounds pretty much impossible. Non-Christians question and scoff. How can you possibly love people the way Jesus loved people?

The Bible makes it even harder. In Luke 10, Jesus is asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself."

It gets even harder. When asked, "Who is my neighbor?" that is, whom must I love? Jesus responds by telling the Good Samaritan story. We have to love people utterly unlike ourselves.

Again, that sounds totally impossible.

We can at least try.

One way we try is "act as if."

There are many stories of saints "acting as if." My favorite.

Saint Francis was a pretty amazing guy. Enlightened. Recognized as amazing.

But he had a flaw. He couldn't abide lepers. Who could? They looked disgusting. They spread a hideously deforming contagion.

Saint Francis recognized his abhorrence of lepers as his challenge.

So he walked up to a wandering leper, embraced, and kissed him. In some tellings of this story, the leper then turned into Jesus. Mother Teresa understood this. As she worked with lepers in Calcutta, she called them, "Christ in distressing disguise."

One telling of this story, dating from 1264 and said to have been written by Saint Francis' companions, shows remarkable insight.

"Francis, everything you loved carnally and desired to have, you must despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. Because once you begin doing this, what before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter; and what before made you shudder will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight."

The above thirteenth-century excerpt articulates, not the hydraulic theory of emotions, but the "practice makes perfect" theory.

God acknowledges that Francis' body, his "meat" – his carnality – wants creature comforts, including the disgust Francis feels for lepers.

God doesn't tell Francis to express that disgust, to "let it out."

Rather, God tells Francis to "act as if." Act as if you love lepers, and you will come to love lepers, and other humans you had previously hated.

The Trump campaign and the behavior of Trump supporters has me worried and scared. The Trump campaign encourages anger and hate. That won't "let anything out." It will merely make people angrier, more hateful.

I want to keep Saint Francis in mind in these troubled times. I want to remember God's message to Francis, and Jesus' message to us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."


  1. A reader who would not like to be identified sent in this comment:

    "Our group had its annual party. The Brexiteers sat apart from the non-Brexiteers. As a group we will never be the same again. This is reflected throughout the country. Who can you trust? Who is in your tribe? That applies to both sides of the divide.

    I reckon it's going to be far worse in the US."

  2. Morton A Goldberg

    Danusha, I can tell you from my personal experience that the Hydraulic Theory is wrong and the Practice-Makes-Perfect Theory is correct.

    My late father was a very good man with one flaw: a terrible temper. At one time, I, too, not surprisingly, had a terrible temper. But when I began to work with large farm animals, I quickly learned that a terrible temper was a luxury I simply could not afford.

    When working with animals of any size, losing one's temper invariably makes any bad situation worse. When the animals outweigh you by a factor of 5 to 10 and have the physical ability to crush you like a bug, the last thing you want to do is to get them mad at you. So I trained myself to be patient and calm in all situations, and, where possible, to find whatever humor there might be in even the worst situations.

    Those abilities have gotten me through some exceedingly difficult, life-threatening situations, and are, in large part, responsible for the fact that I am sitting here typing on this laptop instead of dead and buried.