What do you care about? Are there issues and situations that trouble you and serve as emotional triggers? Do you care about things that are beyond your control? Does this make you feel powerless and frustrated? It is more than possible that you care too much. More than that, it is possible that caring itself is distorted in our culture. To the point, “caring” can easily be sinful if it is rightly understood. The Christian life is not defined by caring.
The Broadway musical, Hair, had a song about “caring” that captures the plaintive feelings and ironies of modern culture. Three Dog Night turned it into a hit:
How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard,
Easy to be cold.
How can people have no feelings?
How can they ignore their friends?
Easy to be proud.
Easy to say no.
Especially people who care about strangers,
Who care about evil and social injustice,
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needy friend?…
A recent television news conversation included a reporter (sic) haranguing a guest for not caring about a particular problem. The guest kept bringing the conversation back to the question of “what would you actually suggest we do” (the problem was an intractable issue that did not admit of a solution). But the reporter was deeply exercised that the guest somehow “didn’t care.”
Caring is the popular word for “sentiment.” Sentiment is simply a set of feelings we might have about any particular thing. Like anger, sentiment is only useful if it is geared towards action. Anger is a proper emotion, quite short-lived when it is healthy, that triggers our adrenal glands, jarring the body into action. As a long-term emotion, anger is deeply destructive. Sentiment, in its popular form, is almost useless. It carries just about as much real information as preferences in fashion and the like. But it is often used to substitute for actual moral goodness. This is destructive in a manner similar to long-term anger.
Sentiment became a “thing” somewhere in the early 19th century. It is a modern phenomenon. The 18th century had been a time in which reason was exalted over all things, including feelings. Emotional displays were discouraged. In the Protestant religious world of Europe, Church became a dry exercise in moral instruction. The 19th century saw a reactionary swing in the other direction in which feelings came to predominate. The great revival movements through the first half of that century were utterly centered in feelings. Art as well came to be thought of as something that should provoke feelings. The dry precision of Bach’s classical compositions can seem almost mechanical when compared to the extremes of Beethoven’s romanticism. In the world of popular culture, Beethoven won the argument long ago. We are no longer a culture of intellect, but a society of sentiments.
For the believer, this becomes a very important question. We are nowhere commanded to “feel” anything. The love for neighbor that Christ demands is not measured by how intensely we think or feel. It is a matter of what we do. It is not that emotion has no place in our life, but it was never meant to occupy a central position. In strong measure, it is almost always delusional.
When someone tells me that they “feel strongly” about something, I understand what they mean. On the one hand, it means that their mind has become captive to a set of sentiments. On the other hand, it might very well mean that they actually do nothing with regard to what they “care” about. Modern culture is filled with people who “care” about all kinds of things. Some of the things they “care” about are even worthy of care. But “caring” is only a measure of an internal, subjective experience. It is in no way an indicator of what you might do in your life.
I have noticed over the years that almost everybody has an opinion (a set of “feelings”) about money, particularly what other people do with their money. Only the briefest excursion onto social media will reveal all kinds of “feelings” about money (and everything else). It is very easy to find people who believe that there are those with too much money who should give it to the poor. But this in no way indicates that the person involved actually does anything about the poor themselves. They may even have a sense of identity tied up with caring for the poor. But that will again not be an indicator of their level of action.
Many will describe such a situation as “hypocrisy” – claiming to care about something but doing nothing. Perhaps it is. But this is not a helpful analysis of what is taking place. The issue isn’t simply that we care and do nothing – it’s that we place such value in the notion of caring itself. What does “caring” mean?
Emotions are good things. Happiness, sadness, empathy, etc. are all extremely important in the human life. However, there is a place within our experience that is the primary location of caring: the passions. The passions are habits of our soul and body that are largely experienced in a passive manner. We do not choose them – we experience them. Experience is perhaps not a strong enough word. We not only experience them, we often cannot help but experience them. In their most destructive forms, we can be enslaved to our passions. Many (if not most) of our desires are passion-driven. We not only want to eat, we want to eat too much and we want to eat the wrong things. And the wanting can be overwhelming. These are not experiences rooted in decisions. Indeed, we discover that try as we might, our choices often have little power over our passions.
Our sentiments work very much in this manner. Many of the things that we feel about most deeply, lie somewhere outside the realm of our choices. Indeed, many times we are unable to remember how we came to feel so strongly about something. We often experience such sentiments in a shared manner – having a sense of identity and belonging attached to how we feel. We like people who feel the same way as we do. We may even think (or feel) that people who do not feel as we do are somehow lacking or corrupt. Our sentiments are extremely vulnerable to manipulation. And this is their deep value in our culture.
We are not living as batteries in the Matrix films: batteries are useful and produce electricity. We are living as consumers and users. It’s not always clear for whose sake it is that we live as consumers, though I suggest that one should follow the money. We should understand that it really doesn’t matter what we consume, so long as we consume. And just as the tracking algorithms that currently follow our behavior (and therefore send us more of what it is we like), so our affinities and sentiments are tracked as well. And our sentiments are used, as is our consumption.
Our sentiments can be used because we experience them, not as a matter of freedom, but as a matter of the passions. Once I engage something on the level of sentiment, I can only free myself from its movements with real effort. Various “loyalties” in our lives: sports, politics, brand names, causes, etc., become the fulcrums from which our consumption is leveraged. But, just as the lyric from Hair complains, our sentiments generally result in nothing more than a set of feelings and a set of buying habits. They are little more than the emotional noise of a consumer culture.
The Christian life is not supposed to be lived without feeling. But having the right emotions, in the right manner and for the right reason is a very difficult thing. And this spiritual life of the emotions is made all the more difficult by cultural assumptions that tell us that our “feelings” (sentiments) are important, and that they just happen, and that they are actually the result of freedom and decisions.
So, we begin by admitting that our “feelings” (sentiments) are really of very little value. We begin to deconstruct them and see where they have come from. If you are passionate about an issue, ask yourself why. And don’t just answer, “Because it’s important!” Such an answer only means that your passion is really strong.
Ask yourself, “What would happen if I wasn’t here to care about this?” (Because you won’t be).
The modern project has declared its purpose to form, shape and control the world and produce better outcomes. It has made itself responsible for all things (a delusion). And we have come to believe that we are responsible for all things and that it is our task to control them. We have also come to believe and accept that unless we feel strongly about some things, then they will be neglected or ignored and the important outcomes that we desire (or feel so strongly about) will not happen.
This, of course, is a formula for anxiety: I should care greatly about things over which I am powerless. It is little wonder that modern people are anxious and angry. And those who would have power over us need do nothing more than make us feel that we are heard and that they are doing something important. We’ll send them our money, or buy what they are selling, etc.
This is a sham existence. We are not measured by how we feel about things. What judgment we find from God is only about what we have done or not done. It doesn’t matter if you “care about” the poor and are “deeply committed to just wages,” etc. It does matter what you do with your neighbor. Share what you have, be kind and forgive everyone for everything.
By God’s grace, our emotions can be healed over time and not be subject to every emotional fashion and cause that blows our way. God give us grace!