Sunday, February 01, 2009

Not in Ourselves, But in Our Stars

The following advertisement brought tears to the eyes of NRO's Mike Potemra:

I know the feeling. I believe this response is created by something that was identified by that twisted old lefty cineaste (and really, a terrific writer) Roger Ebert, in a recent article on his blog:

I've been saying for years that I never cry during sad moments in the movies, only during moments about goodness. At the end of "Terms of Endearment," I didn't cry because of Debra Winger's death, but because of how she said goodbye to her sons. Now I've have discovered a scientific explanation for why I feel the way that I do, and there is even a name for my specific emotion.

I wasn't seeking an explanation, and I'm not sure I really wanted one. And, for that matter, I don't really cry, at least not in the wiping-my-eyes and blowing-my-nose fashion. What I experience is the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift

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."

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. Summarized by Ebert:

During Barack Obama's victory speech on Nov. 4, I felt a powerful, long-sustaining feeling of uplift. No, it was not because of the speech, however powerful. It was because of those hundreds of thousands together in Grant Park, a sea of humanity, all races, all religions, all ethnicities, all together, affirming American hope. It was not so much that they had elected a black man as our president, although that was a part. It was because they had risen up and affirmed the America I grew up believing in.

OK - definitive evidence that this emotion is NOT caused by getting close to universal truth.

Two possible interpretations. Elevation is caused only by the "truth" we've been conditioned to recognize. Or, possibly, a universal truth is present in Barack Obama's acceptance speech every bit as much as the video above. It's just that neither Ebert nor I (nor anyone) has the ability to appreciate all aspects of universal truth (God).

I'll go with that second one for now.

In any regard, the ad above was intended for a Super Bowl appearance, but NBC nixed it. (I suspect they are more of the Ebert school of truth recognition.) But where NBC goes wobbly, EWTN picks up the standard, running it throughout their evening programming tonight.

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