Sharks are infamous for the feeding frenzy. They smell blood, and they lose control. All their instincts go on high alert. They turn into a finely tuned hunting machine, with one goal, to eat the kill.
Other animals, too, have their frenzies. The predator hunts, and the prey runs. Instinct tells them to panic, and that’s exactly what they do. The adrenaline pumps. The muscles engage. All of the creature’s strength and brain power directs itself toward one goal, whether to kill or to avoid being killed.
And humans are no different.
Maybe modern prosperity has obviated the need for the feeding frenzy. But modern culture still bombards us with stimuli that hype up our emotions, designed to whip everyone into a “feeling frenzy.”
Politicians and the news media capitalize on our fears and hatreds, not to inform us, but to provoke a knee-jerk reaction. The heightened anxiety and paranoia that results, it makes it impossible to distinguish the finer points of social activism. No wonder political activists become so polarized over relatively insignificant details.
Effective marketers also use these methods, because they work. If you want to sell a product, terrify your prospective customer that he might have to go without it.
Reality TV capitalizes on others’ misfortunes for dramatic effect, making us feel superior. Why would I possibly want to see some contestant’s dream crash and burn? Or some poor slob wrestle with a debilitating social or psychological disorder? Is this the modern analogue to the Roman arena?
Modern religion often centers around church hype. Some church services seem designed not to help you to think and to grow spiritually, but to push you to an emotional high. Frankly, if you’re going to do that, why not just smoke crack? It’s quicker.
Irony of ironies that I, a fiction author, would be trashing the feeling frenzy. After all, effective fiction always create an emotional experience, and the more powerful the emotional experience, the more powerful the fictional story. The feeling frenzy is what makes lowest-common-denominator books and movies so popular. But I rarely appreciate the beauty of LCD books and movies. Explosions do nothing for me, nor does melodrama. But show me a story that marries the emotional experience to a deeper truth, and now you’ve intrigued me.
“Girl on Fire” Christine Claire Reed recently wrote on Facebook, regarding posting only negative news, “Human hearts are not built to take in every single tragedy around the globe. We are built for village life.” I found myself forced to agree. Life is so much more enjoyable when we try to better the lives of those around us, rather than if we dwell on various terrors on the earth. There will always be terror somewhere in the world, but my happiness starts with me.
Fear invokes instinctive black-and-white thinking. This works well as an instinct, because in a life-or-death, fight-or-flight situation, you have no time to stop and analyze. You must act, quick. And we instinctively prioritize fear over pleasure, because if you miss a meal due to a lion threatening you, you can always find another meal later. But if you miss a threatening lion due to hunger, well, you won’t have to worry about being hungry ever again. On an instinctive level, fear is more important than pleasure.
But dwelling on the negative cannot increase our joy, because the resulting feeling frenzy is the opposite of spiritual growth, and incompatible with it. When the human mind encounters powerful emotions, they dominate one’s thoughts. We now understand that when our emotional brain is on high alert, it asserts itself, inhibits our intellect, and polarizes our thinking into blacks and whites. In this state, we are unable to discern the finer shades of grey in the world around us. But if we are to grow spiritually, we must learn to discern these shades of grey—in fact, that’s what spiritual growth is all about. A diet of fear and hatred inhibits healthy spiritual growth in the same way that a diet of sugar and chocolate interferes with healthy physical growth.
Healthy spiritual growth is about balance, not about passion. It’s about discounting terror that does not endanger us. It’s about recognizing and rejoicing in the good news that surrounds us every day. It’s about calming our emotions in order to meditate on what edifies and uplifts us. It’s about distinguishing ever finer perceptions, and then expressing those thoughts in the world around us.
I’d like to conclude with one of my favorite quotes, from Rav Shaul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi (Philippians 4:8-9): “Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of shalom will be with you.”