The Personalist Project

In a book on hospice care for the dying called Final Journeys, I came across these lines:

When I first meet people who are adjusting to a terminal diagnosis, I never try to diminish their emotions. “Yes, this is terrible news and it’s very, very sad,” I say. “You don’t need to make excuses for the way you feel. You have a right to feel this way.” These words identify and recognize the struggle the dying person and family are going through. Validation is one of the first and most important tools for opening a different door. [Emphasis added.]

It struck me as a true and beautiful insight, and a typically modern one. It reflects the “turn toward subjectivity” that is a major hallmark of our age. We are learning not to think simply in terms of objective standards and expectations. We are more aware that sympathetic attention should be paid to the unique interior situation of each individual—perhaps especially in cases of trial and suffering.

Haven’t we all experienced the practical wisdom of this insight—both directly and indirectly, by the experience of its opposite? We express emotional pain, for instance, and instead of sympathy we get correction, judgment or unwanted advice. “You’re too sensitive” or “Think positively,” “Mind over matter!” This typically evokes a response of defensiveness in us and a feeling of alienation, which adds to our misery. On the other hand, having a friend sympathetically listen to our troubles without judging us or immediately telling us what we should do, often gives us the relief we need to rise to the challenges we’re facing.

This is a lesson I’ve been lamentably slow to learn, personally. For much of my life I’d unconsciously assumed that a friend telling me her troubles was the same as a friend asking me for advice. It’s only lately that I’ve begun to understand how seldom advice is really wanted, and how bad a habit it is to give it where it’s not wanted. I’ve learned it partly by noticing that some friends who used to come to me with their troubles don’t anymore, and that when I am in trouble, the friends I turn to are the ones with a particular gift of sympathetic listening.

My desire to become better at this kind of listening is one of the reasons I’m training for hospice volunteer work. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What I really want to point out is something else about this notion of “validating feelings”—the flip side.

Not only is it a true insight reflecting a good development, typical our age; it’s also an idea that’s easily twisted into bad teaching infected with the kind of subjectivism and relativism that are, sadly, likewise typical of our age. Let me try to show how.

In the example given above, there is an unspoken premise. The people the author is speaking of have just learned of a terminal diagnosis in themselves or a loved one. In other words, their emotions are a response to a terrible objective evil. But that premise is dropped when the insight is rendered into a general principle for, say, conflict resolution: “It’s important to validate feelings.” And that general principle then quickly morphs into a positive claim of right: “I have a right to have my feelings validated.” From there it’s a short step to, “My feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s” and “There’s no such thing as invalid feelings.”

You see what’s happened? Feelings have been severed from all relation to objective reality. In fact, the only “reality” allowed is the reality of how I feel. We have arrived at the relativism and skepticism that have such corrosive effects our society and on our interpersonal relations. Yet, it’s amazing to observe how many Christians have absorbed this mode of thinking—who even teach it.

In truth, there are such things as invalid feelings—viz., feelings that are completely out of whack with reality. For instance, a friend and I both try out for a part in a play. She is chosen and I hate her for it. This feeling may be natural; it may be understandable; it may be pitiable, but it can’t be called valid. My friend has done nothing to merit my hatred. She can’t “validate my feelings” without accusing herself of wrong she didn’t do. In fact, it is I who owe her an apology, for my irrational viciousness toward her.

Or—another typical case—my friend is hurt or offended by something I did or said. Maybe I told her that I have to spend less time with her because I’m attending to other things in my life. What I said was, objectively, not an offense at all, not wrong, not something I can or should apologize for. But, these days, that friend will typically think that the fact that she feels hurt is enough to establish that I owe her an apology. If I don’t give it to her, she will feel further hurt. Here we see emerging the pattern of co-dependency.

What we need is to appropriate the truth about subjectivity without losing our grip on the importance of objective reality in the life of the person and in the issues and conflicts that arise between persons.

This one of the great gift/tasks of personalism as we understand it.

Comments (3)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Oct 20, 2011 9:27am

I should probably write a separate post about this since my point is only remotely related. But no time for that now.

Yesterday I noticed (in Bernard Williams) an interesting way in which utilitarianism tends to sever our feelings from objective reality. According to the utilitarianist, I ought to act in order to maximize happiness in the world. Sometimes this means doing things I find morally repugnant (e.g. framing and killing an innocent person to save the lives of many others). Refusing to do such things on that basis, however, is, according to the utilitarianist, a kind of "self-indulgent squeamishness." It is to act like a surgeon who won't amputate a leg because he does not like the sight of blood.

But it is surely a mistake to reduce all (and especially moral) feelings to mere subjective experiences. Writes Williams:

...our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can or cannot 'live with'... to regard those feelings [as mere disagreeable experiences, and thus] as happenings outside one's moral self, is to lose a sense of one's moral identity; to lose, in the most literal way, one's integrity.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Oct 20, 2011 12:44pm

Jules van Schaijik, Oct. 20 at 8:27am

I should probably write a separate post about this 

Yes, I agree--a new post!

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Oct 20, 2011 1:39pm

Katie van Schaijik, Oct. 20 at 11:44am


Jules van Schaijik, Oct. 20 at 8:27am

I should probably write a separate post about this 


Yes, I agree—a new post!

I'm a-gettin'! I'm a-gettin'!

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