Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Talking with James Croft

It's been a while since I did any serious writing, and what gets me back to it? I get to have a dialogue with James Croft, of the blog "Temple of the Future"! This is my initial post in that dialogue. We'll see how it goes. 

Recently, James posted about his gut reactions to four different communities that he visited as part of The Humanist Institute, a leadership training program for the Humanist movement. After I read his post, "Loving and Hating Religion--Some Reflections After Visiting Religious Communities," I realized, as I told James on Facebook
Sometimes, your mind just seems so strange and foreign to me. Your gut level reactions are so different from what I imagine mine would be, that I can't help but wonder how to relate to you. And then I wonder, "am I the odd one?" For example, your description of the BJ group seemed cultish and melodramatic to me, but you don't react like that.
To which he responded
Nathan - perhaps we should find a forum to explore that question. I find it very interesting too. Perhaps there is some answer in our different histories and experiences, or perhaps it's just a difference in brute preference over which we have little control.
A few more exchanges, and here we are.

Let me quote the description of the B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue that I referenced.

Entering this gorgeous old building was like walking into a palpable wall of love. You could feel the positive energy in the air, the sense of excitement for the upcoming Kabbalat Shabbat service. People were hugging, clasping hands and bodies together, staring into each other’s eyes like long-parted lovers. They wanted to be there. 
Our guide – BJ (as it’s called, no joke) asks that visiting groups register before attending and offers a member to guide them through the service – was effusive about the value of the community, explaining its history and values with overflowing enthusiasm. Most striking was when I asked her what role the temple had played in her life: she rocked back on her heels as if I had pushed her, and tears sprang to her eyes almost immediately. “I…I…”, she stammered. “I would love to answer that question. But you’ll have to email me. I can’t…it’s too much.” She so loved her community that to think of it almost knocked her off her feet. That’s serious love. 
The service itself was wonderful: a rich explosion of music (including plenty of nigun(wordless) chant for those who didn't know the words), color, and even dance, as the audience leapt to its feet at one moment to snake around the auditorium, arms linked and feet tapping. It was awesome.
All emphasis comes from James. Rereading that description now, my initial reaction of "cultish and melodramatic" seems only slightly overblown to me, but James clearly loved being there.  Why the difference? When I look at that description, I see more than one thing that I can't seem to relate to. "..palpable wall of love." "positive energy in the air" People getting up close and personal like long lost lovers.   I don't recall ever feeling "positive energy" in the way he describes (maybe when I was going through a New Age phase?), and I've no clue what a wall of love would feel like. I love my wife tremendously, and I love my friends dearly (including ones that actually are former lovers), but I don't know if I've ever wanted to be around a particular group of people so much that I would react as the members of that community reacted. And the guide's reaction of almost being knocked over by a question? I've seen that sort of thing in books, but I don't think I ever believed I'd hear of such a thing in real life! And I can't relate to it, not even in thinking about my wife.

My wife, Michelle, is one of the best people in my life. Being with her continues to be the best experience of my life. She has literally become more attractive to me as the years have gone by (something that sounds silly, but is nonetheless true). Sometimes I find myself just stopping to stare at her, losing track of whatever thought was going through my head. She's brought tons of laughter into my life, and new thoughts and ways of looking at things that continue to enrich my life. But I would never come close to falling over just from a question about how she's affected my life. I do not believe, however, that the guide necessarily loves her community more than I love my wife.

Is it possible that I simply don't have strong reactions to experiences in a way that translates physically? This is certainly possible, I suppose, maybe even likely. Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.

Yet, when I try to imagine the experience of being at the BJ community's service, the word "suffocating" is what comes to mind, rather than any positive emotion just looking for expression. It reminds me of the images of smiling cults that one sees on TV, yes, and it sounds over-the-top, true, but it also sounds like a lot of people and noise pressing in on me, making it hard to breath. Of course, that can probably be chalked up to me not liking crowds.

Maybe James is right, and there's simply a more fundamental, hard-wired difference here. After all, I'm an introvert, while James, I suspect, is an extrovert. Or, perhaps it has something to do with how we think, and not just what we think. I think in words, always have. Other people, like my wife, or Temple Grandin (author of "Thinking in Pictures" and "Animals in Translation") think more in pictures and other sense data. Until I read "Animals in Translation," it didn't even occur to me that other people weren't using words in the privacy of their own head to interpret the world around them. I don't have the book available, or I'd quote the relevant passage. Since then however, I've had multiple conversations with Michelle that have highlighted the differences in our individual experience of thought.

For example, when I think of "Michelle," what comes to mind first and foremost are words--labels and descriptions--like "wife," "lover," "funny" "sexy" "friend" "love" "laughter" "animates the world" "occasionally frustrating" "artist" etc. My understanding of the person and concept "Michelle" is almost entirely in words. Images and non-verbal sounds are in the background, and fuzzy and indistinct (the most prominent of these would be the sound of her laughter, unless I'm horny). When Michelle thinks of me, "Nathan," what comes to mind are sights, sounds, smells, and all these non-verbal, sensory impressions that combine in her mind to mean "Nathan." At one time, we came to the conclusion that our different ways of thinking might be why I like labels, and she hates them. I see labels as descriptive, but with each label only describing a portion of a person, and not always a large portion. She sees labels as limiting and unexpressive of the real person or thing.

So, maybe there's something like that going on with James and I having different reactions. Or maybe there's a difference in our past, such as how we react to emotion, or our experiences with religion, that explains it. Or perhaps something else entirely.

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