The Age of Feelings

In the Pacific Coast waters off the Northern California city of Eureka on Nov. 10, a mother, a father and their teenage son all died.

It was not a boating accident or a shark attack. 

They died because at least one of them tried to save the family dog, which had been carried out to sea by 10-foot waves. The 16-year-old son ran into the water. When the father could no longer see the son, he ran into the water to save the teen. Meanwhile, the son had gone back to shore. But when he and his mom could no longer see the father, they both tried to save him.

All three drowned.

The dog swam back to the shore.

I relate this terrible tragedy because it illuminates a major issue that we all — especially parents raising young children — need to address.

It is the role of feelings in determining our actions.

Why did this teenager — as have so many others, young and old — risk his life to save his dog? Because he acted on feelings, not on reason or values.

We live in the Age of Feelings. People make big decisions in their own lives, and in the life of the nation, based on feelings.

The heart has supplanted reason and values. Some years ago, I interviewed a Swedish doctoral student about her thoughts on life. 

I asked her if she believed in God? No.

I asked her if she believed in any religion? No, again.

So, then, I asked, how do you determine right and wrong? 

Her heart tells her, she responded.

One of the first things I learned in yeshiva as a child was not to allow feelings to determine how I acted. This realization took place in fourth grade, when my rabbi announced, “Boys, it’s time to daven mincha” (to say the afternoon prayers).

I walked over to Rabbi Fostag and respectfully told him that “I wasn’t in the mood to daven mincha.”

He studied the comment thoughtfully, rubbing his beard. He had probably never heard the words “mood” and “daven” (or any other mitzvah, for that matter) put together. 

Finally, he looked up and said, “Shmuel Prager is not in the mood to daven mincha? So what?”

I learned one of the greatest moral lessons that day — that good can rarely, if ever, depend on the heart. Indeed the Tanakh is filled with warnings against being guided by the heart (and the eyes).

That family might be alive today if someone had told that teenage boy never to risk his life to save his dog. 

Someone, ideally his parents, needed to tell him the following:

“All of us in the family love Teddy [a name I’m giving the dog]. But you must understand that you are infinitely more precious to Mom and Dad than is Teddy. As sad as Teddy’s death will one day be, we can always get another dog. But we can never replace you or your sister [a sister is now the family’s sole surviving member]. More than that, human life is infinitely more precious than animal life. We, not animals, are created in God’s image. So, you need to promise us that if there is any risk in saving Teddy’s life — such as happens most frequently when a dog falls into a body of water or is carried away by a current, you will stop yourself from trying to save him. Your death would ruin our lives. Teddy’s death wouldn’t.”

There are no guarantees that this would work. But parents should have such a talk with their children. At the very least, it teaches one of the most important rules of life: that we cannot be ruled by our feelings but must be ruled by values.

We have sent young Americans the very opposite message. How they feel about things has become parents’ and society’s No. 1 concern. Instead of an objective right and wrong, young people are taught only to be concerned with how they feel about an action. The entire Values Clarification movement in public schools years ago was about “clarifying” how students felt about any action (such as whether to return a lost purse). Because there is never a right answer, all that mattered was that they be clear about how they felt.

A generation of parents and educators has now come to believe and to teach that when it comes to sex, teenagers will simply act on their feelings, so all we adults can do is provide them with contraceptives and sex education about contraception. The idea that teenagers might actually curb their sexual appetites if taught to control their feelings and to live by certain values is regarded as antiquated nonsense in this, the Age of Feelings.

But this “antiquated nonsense” is actually a fundamental Jewish teaching. Indeed, if one had to isolate the greatest lesson of Judaism, it might arguably be this: Behavior is what matters. Not feelings. 

Feelings make us human, but they are awful guides on how to be human. Tell that to your kids.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).