The question I want to ask today is this: “How do you know how you are feeling?”
But as I was thinking about it, a scene came to mind. I don’t know what it’s a scene from. Maybe the scene is such a cliché that it isn’t worth asking about. In this scene, a man is in a bed in his hospital room and a nurse comes in and asks, “How are we feeling today, Mr. Jones?” What is that “we” doing there? It isn’t the royal “we.” It isn’t a collective “we,” as if the patient and the nurse had some way the two of them were feeling. Is there some advantage to the “we” form: it’s more empathic, less intrusive, more hopeful? I don’t see it.
I want to say that we don’t really know how we are feeling, ordinarily, because there is always a context and what we know takes that context into account. So let’s say that I’m the guy in the hospital bed and when the nurse asks me “the question,” I say, “Let’s find out. I will need to consult the oracle.” The oracle I would have in mind, if I said that, would be my body. (Naughty Nurse comes up when you google “How are we feeling today?”)
But don’t you just know how your body feels? No. I read a really interesting piece of research about endurance. They were studying cyclists and what happens as they drive these cyclists to exhaustion. The treatment that worked best in staving off exhaustion was rinsing the mouth with sugar water. You might want to stop and read that again. No sugar intake. No new calories. What there was was the promise of new calories. It was the promise, not the calories, that released the extra energy.
How would that be? There is, it turns out, a center in your brain that decides whether the very last drop of energy should be released for use by the muscles. It’s a pretty conservative center—in my own mind, I picture the Federal Reserve System—and it hangs onto (does not release for your use) quite a bit of energy. “It” has the energy and “you” do not. You have to stop and catch that division. When you get the sugar water rinse, this center believes that new energy resources are going to be available soon (they are not) and releases a substantial part of its reserve, which you now get to use.
So my body tells me what it wants to tell me and, having no alternative source of information, I take its word. I always imagine that I am asking the “how am I feeling” question in absolute terms. Like taking a temperature. My temperature is 99.1 degrees: end of story. So if I imagined there were a “feeling good” scale (let’s say 100 points and anything above 80 is really good), I would be expecting a number. The oracle says, “You are currently at 67.”
The dilemma I am digging at is that I really don’t think that the oracle has an absolute scale in mind. I think it has a relative scale in mind. Even if I ask “how am I feeling today,” it answers “you are feeling well enough to/not well enough to” do something in particular. So I ask how I am feeling and the oracle says, “Well, you’ve got three meetings this morning and you don’t really want to go to any of them so you’re not feeling very well.” Or I ask how I’m feeling and it says, as it did this morning, “You’re going to go to church and teach an adult education course that you have been thinking about nonstop for about three weeks. You feel fantastic! I’ll give you a 90.”
In this way of thinking about it, the oracle consults what it knows about what I have to get up for, how I feel about those things, and gives me the number I asked for. It gives me a number (65) that sounds as if it belonged on an absolute scale, but it calculates that number by scanning through my physical and emotional systems and comparing them to the upcoming tasks. Then it gives me the number. And if a nurse were actually asking, I would say, “Oh, 65.” Actually, I’d say, “Oh, not all that well yet.”
Does the oracle distinguish between physical and emotional challenges? Let’s say I slept badly last night and the work I have to do in the morning is mostly physical. The oracle knows my schedule and says, “85, get right to work.” If I slept badly and the morning’s work is to deal with a line of students who are not happy about their grades, the oracle might say, “60. This is going to be a really tough morning.” In this speculation, the oracle matches my sleep-deprived state against the physical work and sees no difficulty (hence 85) and against the emotional strains of dealing with unhappy students and sees a lot of difficulty (hence 60).
If the oracle is going to do a schedule-based scan and report to me an absolute-looking number and if I don’t have any alternative source of information, what should I do? Maybe I should take the oracle’s way of coming to a conclusion a little more seriously. Maybe I just don’t answer the question “How are we feeling today?” or even “How am I feeling today?” Maybe I look first at the work there is to do—that sounds stoic, I suppose—and ask “Do I feel well enough to do THAT?” The oracle’s answer, I’d imagine, would almost always be, “Yes, you feel well enough to do that.”
So then I get up and do it. Would that work, do you think? Or is outpsyching the oracle mostly a waste of time?