Since writing my article ‘Fred Rogers vs. Oprah Winfrey,’ I got a chance to see Tom Hanks’ new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I thought it was a beautiful, moving film, and I came away wanting to be a better person. Interestingly, I went with a group of friends who were divided between those who loved the movie and those who hated it.
One of the people in the group who didn’t like the movie texted me the next day, saying he thought the film was opposed to the values of classical education.
Tertullian (155-220) once famously questioned what commonality there was between Athens and Jerusalem, indicating his suspicion of attempts among his contemporaries to synthesize Christianity with Greek philosophy. My friend asked a similar question, “What hath Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to do with classical education?” His answer was just as emphatic as Tertullian: NOTHING.
Well, that got me started, and for the rest of the day my poor friend was inundated with a series of text messages explaining why I thought the Mr Rogers’ movie was congruent with the values of classical education. (For me, any type of communication is serious discourse, even text messaging.) Below I will copy and paste my side of the conversation because it gets to the heart of something that is of profound interest to many of my readers, namely the relationship between classical education and emotional wellness. To respect my friend’s privacy, I will not be sharing his side of the conversation, although my replies do make reference to his objections.
One of the recurring themes on this blog is the importance of gratefulness. So it may come as a surprise to my readers that this morning I am publishing a post on the virtue of complaining. But hear me out.
Last month, my friend Mark Weisman came over to my office to discuss empathy, emotional intelligence and technology. We looped Jason Boom into the conversation through Skype. It was a fascinating conversation about some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). In a follow-up conversation, we discussed specific techniques people can practice for increasing their EQ skills.
During these discussions, Mark Weisman was able to contribute valuable insights from his perspective working for years in the tech industry, as well as from his experience as a husband. We explored what the latest brain science is showing about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation.
Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom continue the discussion with Mark Weisman on technology, empathy, attention and EQ. In this podcast you will learn what Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and the Great Tradition tell us about bringing attentiveness into our relationships. You will also learn the importance of slowing down to take a reflective turn, how to leverage neuroplasticity for good, and the relationship between the brain, body and emotions. Questions discussed include:
What tools and best practices are available for families who want to push back against the culture of distraction?
Is empathetic listening an ability that some people simply have while others do not, or is it a skill that can be developed with practice?
How does awareness of one’s own feelings relate to sensitivity towards the emotions of others?
How can we develop the intellectual virtue of contemplation, and how does this affect our relationships?
How does the Sabbath commandment reflect natural law?
From the podcast:
“…be aware of what other people are feeling, and listen to the emotions behind what they are saying rather than just being quick to respond to surface issues. Go deeper and really try to listen with your heart and with empathy. Often we get into fights and arguments about issues that are really just proxies for deeper emotional issues, and these deeper emotional issues, when they’re not being adequately addressed or listened to, can cause problems abort issues that are not really the issue.”
The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.
Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.
Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.
In their book Created for Connection, Sue Johnson and Kenneth Sanderfer have helpfully summarized the findings of formal studies about human attachment bonds and how that impacts our love relationships. I quote from pages 29-30 of their excellent book.
Our deepest instinct all through life is to seek out and stay close to a few previous loved ones.
Contact with these loved ones offers us a safe haven to go to and a secure base to go out from with strength and confidence. Secure connection makes us stronger as individuals.
Loss of a felt sense of connection with such loved ones is painful and creates a disorienting sense of vulnerability. Disconnection at times of high need can be traumatizing for human beings.
Emotional accessibility and responsivenes to another’s signals and needs shape secure loving connection. The quality of our emotional engagement is the key element that shapes our love relationships.
There are only a few simple strategies that we use to connect and deal with perceived disconnection. When we feel safe enough, we can risk reaching for a loved one and asking for our needs to be met. When we feel unsafe, we resort to demanding and controlling or, if we truly expect rejection and desertion, we try to turn away and shut down our needs for connection.
These negative strategies can shape the very disconnection we are trying to cope with or avoid.
As adults we can hold loved ones in our minds and find comfort, and we do not always need physical closeness. Adult romantic bonds also have a physical–a sexual–element. Sexuality is part of adult bonding.
The relationship between God and people of faith can be understood as an attachment bond in which God is a safe haven, a secure base, and the ultimate source of comfort and case.
One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.
The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.
The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.
Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.
Learning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.