Following hearts

(This is something I've written about before and make reference to often, but I'm writing about it again because 1) It's been a long time since I first addressed this and 2) My thinking on the subject has become more refined.)

One the most prevalent messages in our culture today is 'follow your heart'. Almost every contemporary mainstream movie made has this as one of it's themes. The main character triumphs over all nay Sayers because s/he alone followed his/her heart, while everyone else foolishly relied on their reason.
How often have we seen a movie/tv character, when challenged on what s/he is doing respond with something like: 'I just know I need to do this!'. They have no reasons, they 'just know' because it's what their heart tells them and no matter how improbable they always turn out to be right.

The message sent, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly is that no matter what anyone else may say, if we follow our heart even it means defying not only everyone on earth but also all logic and reason, we are doing the right thing.

We are taught that very act of believing something strong enough makes it true. And that because we believe it so deeply we justification in doing all we can to make our beliefs manifest.

As an artist and someone who has a natural tendency towards rebellion, this sort of thinking spoke to me.

I remember the moment I began to question it.

I was taking an American history class about the Jacksonian era. That day's lecture had two parts.

The first was about Andrew Jackson's personal character. Both my teacher and the text spoke of him in mostly positive terms. He was praised as someone who always followed his heart regardless of criticisms. This sounded good to me.

The second part of the lecture was about the 'Trail of Tears'. For those unfamiliar: the 'Trail of Tears' was the forced relocation of Native Americans. Andrew Jackson was a leading advocate for and implementer of this by signing the 'Indian Removal act'.

During this lecture it dawned on me that perhaps following one's heart isn't always a good thing. Here was a man following his heart and causing one of the saddest chapters in American History.

(I'm not seeking to judge a historical figure by modern values, the Indian Removal Act was unpopular even during his time, although not nearly as much as today).

Based on the 'follow your heart' principal, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City building, should be an American Hero. Even his fellow Militia Movement followers didn't believe that bombing a day care is a good thing, but he did it anyway.(followed his heart)
A person might argue, "He wasn't really following his heart, our hearts wouldn't ever tell us to do something bad"
Even if that were the case, how can one tell what is really from their 'hearts' and what isn't? I've known several people and in Mormon culture we have all heard stories of people who have felt in their heart that they should marry a certain person who then find out that person isn't interested in them back. (In addition, I'm sure we've all had experiences where we felt certain something was true, which later turned out false) Even if our hearts were the arbiter of truth, which I don't believe it is, it's voice is too easily misunderstood to follow with any certainty.

What makes our hearts so special that they should be the arbiters of good and bad to the exclusion of everything else? Our 'hearts'(intuition?) are subject to all our messy emotional states and cultural indoctrination.
Better than following our 'hearts' we should seek to follow reality.

Granted, I sometimes agree with what people mean when the speak following their hearts.

If by 'follow your heart' a person means 'you don't have to do things based entirely on cultural expectations'.
I agree. But within limits. Sometimes cultural expectations are silly and arbitrary, like clothing and hairstyles, sometimes they have real value like incest taboos.

If they mean 'you are free to like and do the things you actually like even if others might see them as dumb or weird'
I agree. Again, with limits.

If they mean, 'our intuition is sometimes able to figure out things before our reasoning can'
I agree. (I used to not agree, but several studies changed my mind) However, this does not mean our intuition is the source of all truth and always triumphs over reason. Intuition is our unconscious minds noticing something before our conscious mind. it doesn't apply to all situations and it isn't always correct. It doesn't mean our intuition should be trusted over solid contradicting evidence.

If they mean 'it is generally good to try and fulfill one's dreams'.

I give my qualified agreement.
Unfettered dream following may not be a good thing. Sometimes people really are terrible at what they dream of. Sometimes a person's dream is bad(like blowing up a building or invading Iraq) The message that one can and should achieve anything they want is not only unhelpful, but can hurt.

Sometimes people are delusional about their own abilities.
Reality shows have illustrated this point many times over.

No matter how bad a person may be at singing, dancing etc. our culture has taught them to ignore all negative criticism and keep trying. Yes, often the best art was initially criticized and misunderstood. Thank god those artists kept at it until people were finally able to appreciate their genius. But that is the problem with 'follow your heart' type of thinking. It usually only works if you are a genius, or at least able to become very good at what you're doing. Otherwise, it makes you crazy and depressing, like those all those guys online who think they have proved Einstein wrong.

We are saturated with quotes and stories of famous, paradigm changing people whose bold claims are met with mockery and derision yet because of perseverance become recognized as not a fool but as a genius. The problem is, if you are making such a claim but are not part of that .01% geniuses able to change paradigms you really are just a fool.

Our culture often tells us that to be happy we need follow our hearts by pursuing all dreams and wild ideas with maximum ambition, but more often, happiness is already here, we just need to slow down, be quiet and notice it. Then we can be content with what we have and who we are. We can still have dreams and ambitions, but they can be pursued with contentment rather than in search of it.


Vincent said...

There is a simple way to clarify all this, Chris.

Language takes place in a context, and doesn't have unambiguous meaning when taken out of context as a generalization.

If in the course of conversation I were to say "Follow your heart, Chris", I wouldn't be offering you a maxim for life, to be used on every occasion.

I would be referring to the matter in hand, for example whether you should buy the yellow shirt or the grey one. The underlying meaning of my utterance might include the ideas, "I trust your intuition in this matter", and "This is an occasion where you can do what you like, without weighing up the consequences, for this is going to be a leisure shirt, not one that you'll wear for an important interview."

There is always a context.

See also Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Chris Almond said...

I agree with your general point, and I suppose if people were to use to phrase in specific ways rather than as a general principal on how to live one's life I likely wouldn't have felt a need to make an entry like this. However, I feel that this phrase, at least in the US is very often used as a maxim for life to be used on every occasion. If

Vincent said...

Oh, quite so. I'm very aware of the cultural phenomenon that when a person writes a book called "Be here now" then most people will dispense with reading it and merely quote the title, as if it contains in its three words all the wisdom needed. Well, I've never read it either, actually!

The self-help book was pretty much invented in America, though the one called "Self Help" was written by a Scot, Samuel Smiles - a real Scot not an emigrant to the US. I did read that book, as a boy.

Anyhow, though we may have the impression that people in the US may use one or other phrase as a maxim for life to be used on every occasion, I would wager that in each individual usage there is a context which excuses the speaker from mere dumbness, and makes some kind of relevant point.

Vincent said...

On further reflection, I feel that such a wager would be unsafe.