You won't believe how alienated this will make you feel

July 14, 2014

In her media column for the Century last month, Kathryn Reklis, a theology professor at Fordham University, wrote about the many times a day that social media asks her to watch a video and feel something. “You too will cry after watching this . . . 90 percent of people cry,” the Facebook post tells her. She argues that, while kitschy, these videos contain the power of shared feeling, and shared feeling is a step toward empathy and a further step toward compassion—and so, in essence, a social good. I am not sure I agree.

Kathryn’s post got me thinking about church. In the evangelical churches in which I grew up, shared emotion was our common currency. Sing this song: feel this emotion. Hear this sermon: respond with this program. When I discovered the relatively unemotional experience of liturgy, I wept. The freedom of not being told how to feel gave me the freedom, at last, to feel.

I did not find that what I now consider to be emotional manipulation did, in fact, lead me toward empathy and compassion. Instead, I found that, at first, these experiences stirred my emotions. I sought out this experience again and again, because I liked feeling that same stirring. But over time, being told how to feel cultivated distrust—especially distrust toward my own reactions—and numbness. If I was told to feel joy and instead I felt cynicism, while everyone else was feeling joy, I cultivated a double alienation: one toward myself and my own response and the other toward my fellow feelers, who seemed to have no trouble feeling as directed.

I would argue that these shared internet experiences mimic those in my youth. They do not lead to an increase in empathy, but eventually to an emotional weariness and suspicion that in turn leads, in my experience, to alienation.

Perhaps we seek out these online experiences as empty calories in the diet of feeling—food we eat because it tastes good on the tongue, but it leaves us ultimately empty. I don’t actually learn anything about unconditional love by watching other people discover it (as promised by the video). Instead, I am able to replace my need to have that transformative experience myself by watching someone else do it. I am momentarily satisfied, and then I move on to the next click.

I appreciate that Kathryn is trying to find a good in these experiences, and she’s right to wonder why she is drawn to such clickbait. And I am not saying that the process she describes—of being drawn into an ultimate social good through watching these videos—may not work for other people. Millions of people attend worship services with strong emotional content. Millions read the emotionally manipulative fiction of David Baldacci. Millions click on Upworthy videos. They may be finding some nutrition for the soul that I can’t find there. I may be looking at mannah and calling it plant lice.

But I would argue that the end result of this click bait is not shared feeling, but further shared emotional manipulation and alienation. And we already have too much of that.


Haunted like a dream or good

Haunted like a dream or good movie, a sense of someone walking over your future grave is the Image Frykholm leaves us with the quiet in the literurgy that opened a window to her soul.

To deconstruct it as an idiosyncratic event would be to overlook our own need of symbol, a disregarding the sharp end of the spear of language, of our need to act a communal acting and signifying the ineffable-to deny our pre-linguistic free selves.

Ricoeur's brilliant discourse on Freud spoke of the broad aim of psychoanalysis as "Not only a renovation of psyciatry, but a reinterpretation of all psychical productions pertaining to culture, from dreams, through art and morality, to religion" (Ricoeur 1970, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 4).

Frykholm follows suit when she reinterprets culture as needing quiet, not the more noise of emotional coercion, but rather a blank canvas to let symbol do its work in the human spirit. And what is symbols work? If I follow Frykholm and Ricoeur in any sort of authenticity then it is " A locus of complex significations where another meaning is both given and hidden in an immediate meaning (ibid 7)." The actor is both shaped by, and shaps further symbol.

The deeper hidden, shadowy parts of self are too smart to emerge with a Lucky Charms diet. They want us to be hungry enough to sit alone in quiet with a group or even in our own cell so that we can come face to face with our own parts of self that are torn by desire, tattared by shame-hurt-trauma-fear. Deep calls unto deep.

The action of the action of the liturgy is the human work of engaging in symbolic art. The power of the liturgy is not that we know what every symbol signifies in our own lives; the power of symbol is that it does not mean what initially appears. Beauty is a type of interpretation. It seeks harmony and intensity in the complex. "Evil is the malevolent combination of triviality and discord (Graham 1992, Care of Persons Care of Worlds: A Psychosystems Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, p. 53)."

If we want to fight evil in the world then we must look inward not outward. We need to choose intensity with harmony, we have no other choice. This is not the harmony of siging a song together (although that can be nice), it is the harmony of our hidden and revealed selves. If we allow symbol to reinterpret ourselves then pain and its child hatred are broken.