When I was applying for seminary, like all the applicants, I underwent a psychological evaluation. Going over the results with me, the psychologist remarked that I seemed to have very little ability to identify my own emotional state at any given moment. That statement took me aback. I know what my emotions are, I thought, I totally know what I feel. Only later — much later — did I realize how annoyed I was with him for saying that.
Thus, his point was proven.
He was absolutely correct. It isn’t exactly that I don’t know how to identify my feelings but, rather, that I often require time and reflection to do so. For instance, at the end of the day I’ll reflect on my actions and realize that I was curt with my wife because some completely unrelated issue at work was stressing me out. I have to make a conscious effort to understand my feelings. I often fail to do this.
There is no escaping our emotions
Until I met that psychologist, I thought I was just the sort of person who makes decisions with the intellect and doesn’t experience strong emotional reactions. I was even proud of this. I thought it made me more rational.
The psychologist pointed out that I do, indeed, have emotions just like anybody else, but I lose touch with them. When I do, my words and actions actually become less rational because I don’t understand my inner condition, the circumstances that form the context for my decisions.
My emotions affect my behavior far more than I’d like to admit. That’s why it’s so important that I take the time to understand how I’m feeling. Acting out of unexamined emotions is a recipe for disaster. Those are the times when you might randomly and unjustifiably lash out at a random person, have a sudden emotional outburst, or if you’re like me, start to close yourself off and withdraw.
Distrust of feelings
The writer Alice von Hildebrand notes that this attitude carries over into our spiritual lives, writing, “feeling are often denigrated in homilies and in spiritual direction.” This is because we distrust the role that emotions play in our personal development. To have deeply rooted feelings is viewed with suspicion, as if those feelings then cloud our judgment. A truly spiritual person allegedly looks past feelings, pushes past misery or doubt or desire, and drills down to the cold hard facts of intellectual assent.
However, if this is the case, then why did the psychologist encourage me to take the time to identify my emotions? Why didn’t he instead praise me for pushing them out of my active consciousness? And why does the Psalmist encourage us to, “delight in the Lord”? That idea of delight seems suspiciously to me like an emotional attachment.
The answer, of course, is that it would be profoundly unhealthy to eliminate feelings. We are bodily creatures, full of feelings for both good and ill. We are made to experience the full range of emotions. There is value to emotions. They aren’t meant to be pushed aside. Quite the opposite, they are meant to be embraced.
What role should emotions play?
This isn’t to say that our emotions should take the place of the intellect. Since the emotions are so variable, this would cause major issues. Imagine, for instance, if a married couple were to consider the value of their love to be directly tied up with how they currently feel about each other. The marriage would evaporate at the first argument, or even simply if the initial romance cools off over time.
The way to understand the value of following our feelings is first to acknowledge a somewhat contrary truth – our emotions cause us so much difficulty because we tend not to feel enough and not rightly. Many of our emotions are quick, unexamined reactions to various stimuli. They’re only half-felt, reactionary, and indecisive. They’re often in response to superficial events and colored by our selfish perspective.
This isn’t how we are meant to feel. Human beings are created to feel deeply. The trick is to learn to feel full, rightly-orderd, expansive emotions about the right sort of things. The philosopher Plato phrases it succinctly when he says that should learn to, “love what should be loved.”
Life isn’t an intellectual exercise. Living with no emotions at all would be half a life, lacking in richness and plenitude. The intellect and the emotions are meant to cooperate – the intellect guiding the emotions, and the emotions giving body to the intellect.
Enjoy your life
A healthy person doesn’t deny they have feelings but, instead, seeks to purify those feelings. In this way we arrive to a more authentic engagement with ourselves, other people, and the world.
No doubt you’ve noticed that it’s the height of summer vacation. Take delight in it! Enjoy the beach, hiking, long-lazy days, time off work, grilling out on the holidays, watching the baseball game, playing in the park. Enjoy spending time with friends and family. Seek to feel God’s presence at Mass or in prayer.
We are meant to have a positive emotional attachment to good things. This is the joy of life, to love goodness and beauty and naturally desire to appreciate them and, if possible, embody them.
A fully alive person loves that which is lovable, and they do so with their whole selves, which is why Alice von Hildebrand describes feelings which are noble and good as, “precious jewels in God’s sight.”