Last Friday, as my 15-year-old and 13-year-old daughters and I made our celebratory end-of-schoolyear treck to Barnes and Noble for fancy coffee and 1 book of their choice (hopefully to encourage summer reading), we went to Home Depot to buy a few items for summer house projects. As usual, the cashier started putting the items into a plastic bag and, as usual, I said we didn’t need a plastic bag. This started a conversation that lasted the rest of the car ride between my daughters and I about environmental sustainability and an article I had just read in the Star Tribune that morning about Canada banning single-use plastics. I don’t remember whose thought it was, but we had a collective idea that, rather than relying on individuals to decrease consumption, behavior would be more likely to change if the situation changed, and if customers had to “opt in” for plastic, rather than always “opt out.” This, after all, is just good Social Psychology. I thought of Dan Ariely’s popular TED talk in which he discusses how organ donation is greatly impacted by whether individuals have to opt in or opt out, something that varies widely by country. Anyway, I suggested we write our little idea up to the Star Tribune in the form of a letter to the editor, and they published our letter this morning! Not only am I pleased to raise this issue to readers’ consciousness just a bit, but I’m very excited to present the physical newspaper to my daughters this morning, to have them see their names in print, and hopefully inspire a little more civic engagement in their lives.
In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.
I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.
A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00
This story raises several questions for me. One is: what is relatively more moving: the written word, a video recording, or a live performance? Another is: what is the purpose of tears? In this story, there is sadness, but there is also something more akin to inspiration.
Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac
During times of turmoil, this is a prayer to which I often return. It is quoted in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
“We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace
Within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For You have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot pray to You, O God, to end despair;
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If only we would use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.”
At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.
This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.
Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.
There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.
The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:
Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.
I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.
Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.
A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.
My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.
Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.
When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.
When I look backward into my youth – forward all the way to today – I observe an undeniable, constant strand: Part of my identity is that of being a learner and a teacher.
Of course, there are many ways to be a learner and a teacher (two sides of the same coin for me, anyway). Right now, in my life, for example, I a professional teacher, a college professor. However, I also learn and teach at church (as I did recently in leading a group on gays and the church), as a parent, and even sometimes as a friend. This blog post, in fact, is also an act of learning and teaching for me, as it involved reading, thinking, and now sharing. Others learn and teach in their roles as managers, coaches, crew leaders, volunteer leaders, mentors, and pastors. Learning and teaching are roles many of us play in everyday life.