More than a feeling

You know those times when you see something so good, so right, happen —or read about it, or hear about it — and that warm-feeling comes over you? It could be more than a feeling.

There’s a fascinating piece by Brian “St Paul” Ward of Fraters Libertas as he refers to a couple of other articles that have picked up on the fact that people, well, “pick up” on certain things that are good and true.

Ebert cites a Slate article from December, which cites a book called “Born to Be Good” by psychologist Dacher Keltner, who is studying this emotion, called “elevation.” From the Slate article:

Keltner writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing “a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.”

Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in “positive psychology” — what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

We come to elevation, Haidt writes, through observing others — their strength of character, virtue, or “moral beauty.” Elevation evokes in us “a desire to become a better person, or to lead a better life.”

Of course, Ebert, Keltner and Haight attribute this to something cultural or that has evolved in mankind. As I read that section, however, I immediately recognized it as something very familiar; something that Brain and I both recognized as spiritual:

That strikes me as accurate, except for the focus on its sole origin as the actions of others. On occasion, I have experienced elevation with regard to an individuals’ actions, typically a selfless act of kindness or sacrifice. But more often, it’s been an emotion evoked by a broader idea or concept. And this can come not only words, but also an images or music. Movies, books, recordings, as well have people have caused it for me. As such, I never centered on any person involved. Rather, I’ve come to interpret it as a instance of revealing an essential truth. The truth of how we’re supposed to live our lives. In the video above, for example, “let’s not kill our children,” said in a beautiful and simple manner.

Getting close to truth is another way of saying getting close to God. So, this feeling of elevation has a religious meaning for me. I assumed this interpretation would be universal, irrefutable. Yet, the Ebert and Slate articles never even mention the possibility. Instead, they cite as examples of those bringing elevation the pop culture trinity of Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey.

Yes, I’ve felt and enjoyed “elevation” in watching certain movies or reading certain books or hearing certain speakers, but I’ve also felt it most profoundly when infused by a Trinity that’s anything but pop. How ironic, it appears to me, that the learned experts can walk right up to the edge of revelation and stop themselves just short, as if it were a cliff they dare not let themselves go over.

Amazon’s editorial synopsis of Keltner’s book includes the following description (emphasis mine): “A new examination of the surprising origins of human goodness. In Born to Be Good, Dacher Keltner demonstrates that humans are not hardwired to lead lives that are ‘nasty, brutish, and short’— we are in fact born to be good. He investigates an old mystery of human evolution: why have we evolved positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and compassion that promote ethical action and are the fabric of cooperative societies?”

Evolved? Could, perhaps, those emotions have been implanted in us by God? Could they even be the essence of what “being created in the likeness and image of” means? That is, not so much a physical likeness but a spiritual harmonic that resonates in the presence of goodness? I have been suddenly “elevated” while singing praises to God, or in the midst of praying for someone, or when a revelation crystallizes suddenly in my half-alert mind. It doesn’t happen every time I do these things; in fact it usually happens when I’m not expecting it to. In the middle of a song that we’ve sung dozens of times, for example, or in half-way through praying for someone when — whoosh elevation! (Actually, in our circles, we call it “anointing”) It seems to wait for that split-second when I stop thinking about myself to manifest itself and I know that I’ve made a different kind of connection, or been a conduit for one.

It’s not a self-congratulatory wave of emotion from taking pride in my doing something “good”, either; in fact, that kind of thought quenches the feeling immediately. It’s another demonstration of what St. Paul (the apostle, not Brian) wrote when he urged us not to be “conformed” to the world and all of its selfishness, but to be “transformed” by the “renewing of our minds” when we ever-so-briefly touch something larger than ourselves.

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