Emotional openness

Two ways of watching movies

A few days ago, my two daughters Hannah and Bekah and I had an interesting conversation about how we watch movies.

First, Bekah and I analyze movies as we watch. Hannah analyzes movies and her reaction to them after seeing them, but as she is actually watching it is very important to her not to analyze.

Second, Hannah evaluates a movie almost entirely on the basis of how intensely it makes her experience the story. She doesn’t mean that a good movie has to explore grand themes. Some movies are about routine, about the ordinariness of life. That’s fine. Other movies end in emotional ambivalence or even confusion. That’s OK with Hannah too. What she wants, though, is for the movie to allow her to live through the story in the movie as though she had experienced it in her own life. She wants to have really felt the happiness or the tragedy or the sense of routine or the emotional ambivalence.

Bekah and I are more concerned with enjoying or appreciating the various things the movie does well. We have fun when it makes us laugh and enjoy the tingle when it makes us scared, but I think we don’t live through it the way Hannah does. I think it’s a little more distant from us than Hannah experiences.

The reason Hannah can’t analyze a movie as she watches is because she doesn’t want to put any wall between her and the story the movie is telling. She doesn’t want to hold it out at arms’ length and inspect it. She wants to get inside it and then enjoy the ride.

It’s also important to her not to know anything about a movie beforehand. She doesn’t even like to know whether other people liked the movie or not. She wants to experience it naively, without expectations or preconceptions about where it will lead.

Emotional Openness

As Hannah described all this, I realized that I do something very similar sometimes. At certain points in my life, I find myself listening very closely to someone, trying to understand how they see the world. When I do that, I slide into a special frame of mind, in which I suspend judgment as much as possible about how they think and feel, and just try to get them. I try not to compare what they are saying to my own way of looking at things until after I’m sure I’ve really heard what they mean.

Or again, when I interpret a Bible passage, praying about what it means, I find that it helps if I suspend all my expectations for the passage. If I come to a passage with questions or needs they can get in the way. It’s as though I am trying to listen to what the passage is telling me, but I keep talking the whole time. What I have had to learn to do is to be quiet, even in my own thoughts, and just let the Bible speak. I can’t even maintain the goal of being convicted, or being encouraged, or finding something to obey. All these things mean I am interrogating the passage to find out what I want to know instead of letting it simply speak to me.

When I do slip into either of these two mindsets, it always feels to me as though I am opening myself up to the person or the Bible passage. What Hannah does with a movie seems similar to me. She opens herself up emotionally to experience whatever the filmmaker is wanting her to experience. She waits through the whole movie to be sure she gets it all as a whole. Then afterwards she analyzes what has happened to her and how it has changed her.

In daily life

One of the things I’m wondering about is whether God is calling me to learn to take Hannah’s approach to life in general. I’ve been becoming aware in the last few years of the ways I distance myself emotionally from life. I seem to have two emotional gears: in one, I wallow in my feelings, which isn’t very healthy; in the other, I observe them from a distance and live in my head, which is turning out to be not all that healthy either.

I talked a few weeks ago with someone who is going through a kind of charismatic revival in her walk with God. She is experiencing some intense emotional highs in her Christian life and has begun to actively seek that kind of emotion in her prayer and worship. I’m not interested in pursuing emotion for emotion’s sake, and I’m a little leery of becoming too emotionally vulnerable just to be able to feel things more intensely. But it’s also possible to be too much in control emotionally, and I sense that perhaps that is more commonly where I go wrong.

I started thinking after my talk with Hannah that her approach to movies could be my approach to life. By letting go of expectations about how I should feel or want to feel about the day ahead, I can just let myself experience whatever there is. I can let God do whatever He wants to do without trying to fit it into a package labeled “What Life Should Be”.

At the same time if I avoid passing judgment on my emotional experiences as good or bad, if I just let them happen without appraising them as I go, it will keep me from the worst part of wallowing. There’s a kind of protection from the roller-coaster ride of emotions in the very fact that I am not identifying with them or connecting them to my other hopes and fears but just letting them flow over me.

I’m not sure if I entirely trust this approach. It feels like it might be dangerous. I don’t think it has to be narcissistic. I suppose the real question is whether it’s Spirit-led. So I’m not sure where I go from here. Certainly I’ll keep mulling it over. If I can, I’ll spend a little extra time in the Psalms (a good place to learn how to feel the way we’re supposed to). And for now, whatever each day bring to me emotionally I’ll try to accept without passing judgment on it.


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