The social contract in its broadest sense – the shared commitments that lead to recognized standards and provide individuals and groups with a sense of stability – is being replaced by an individual mandate: that individuals must be happy. This mandate requires people to be free to follow feelings wherever they lead, even if doing so destroys relationships or sacrifices integrity.
The concept of freedom upon which this individual mandate is founded was unknown to previous generations. These days freedom is thought of as the right – and sometimes the obligation – to throw off any constraint that hinders the fulfillment of one’s desires. If marriage vows or employment contracts get in the way of happiness, then one is justified in terminating them. This idea surfaces again and again in today’s most popular books and movies.
Even though this individualistic approach to freedom ignores the good of one’s community and even family, it still generates a great deal of energy in our society. This is true not only in the arts but also in politics, on both side of the political spectrum. For example, liberals could not have found a “right to an abortion” in the Constitution apart from this highly individualistic view of freedom. On the conservative side, the argument against gun control draws heavily from it, if not for intellectual validation, at least for emotional appeal.
This notion of freedom would have seemed wrongheaded to our forefathers. They would not have seen it as an extension of the inalienable right to pursue happiness but as an inherent wrong that is guaranteed to alienate people from one another.
Nevertheless, this is the culture we live in today: fiercely individualistic, libertarian (if not in creed, then in practice) and dominated by feelings in a way that has only rarely been matched in history, and even then only in small pockets of society. Feelings (including sensations, emotions and desires) are the tyrants of our age. Feeling is king. It may even be god. Every age has its idolatries. Ours is the idolatry of feelings.
People today find it difficult to distinguish between themselves and their feelings, particularly their desires. If a prophet in the 1940s had predicted that the day would come when groups of people would identify themselves primarily by their sexual desires, as they do today (“I’m straight” or “I’m gay”), people would have laughed at him. But it is has happened. People today do not merely have feelings; they are their feelings.
This can only prove disastrous, on both a personal level and a societal level. On a personal level, this supremacy of feelings will quickly destroy a life. As Dallas Willard once put it, “The mind becomes a fearful wilderness and a wild intermixture of thought and feeling, manifested in willful stupidities, blatant inconsistencies, and confusions…”
The ascendency of feeling has led to a culture of addiction. “Addiction is a feeling phenomenon,” says Willard. “The addict is one who, in one way or another, has given in to feeling … and has placed it in the position of ultimate value in his or her life.” Having given in, he or she is under compulsion to obey the feeling. Its power to rule has been granted.
But when feelings rule, chaos reigns. Decisions on long-term issues are generated by short-term emotions. Addictions take root, families take flight and intelligent discourse vanishes. Instead of tackling problems, leaders try to manipulate feelings – an apt description of political, religious and business strategies today.
This is not to say that feelings are somehow wrong or ought to be repressed. They are good and ought to be felt. But God intended us to rule our feelings, not to be ruled by them.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 27, 2013