Emotions Are Not Shameful

From time to time, I use the word "feel" when I'm writing.  Almost always, some reader castigates me for being ruled by my emotions, for making decisions based on squishy, gooshy, lady feelings which have no place in the fine, solid world of reason, justice, and right thinking.

This, I'm happy to have finally figured out, is nonsense.

It's absolutely true that we should not be ruled by our emotions.  We should not make decisions based solely on how we feel; and we should not mistake feelings for an end in themselves, as Mark Shea reminds us in "Love Is Not Feelings."  We all know someone who allows himself to always to be dragged around by a hurricane of emotion, and it's a horrible sight, and makes no end of trouble for the people who must try and keep up -- and clean up afterwards.

Unbridled emotionalism also leads to bad law and bad public policy; and we've also seen this foolishness play out horribly in the Church:  theology is replaced with hand-holding and doctrine is shuttled off as something cold and hard, while emotions are elevated on a flowery throne.  This path, of course, leads straight to Hell.  Better to have no religion at all, than to think religion is all about feelings.

However.  In trying to avoid this mess, many people fall into the trap of rejecting emotion entirely -- trying to stamp it out wherever it arises, and always answering someone's "I feel" with a sneering "Who cares?"  This exaggerated vigilance against emotion very often takes the form of misogyny (women are more likely than men to be open about their emotions; therefore women are inferior), or is used as an excuse for selfishness ("Why should my wife expect anything special on her birthday?  I'm good to her every day of the year!") or cruelty ("Don't jerk me around with your photos of burned children -- Hiroshima was foreign policy's finest hour").

I spent many years trying to squash emotion whenever it arose, because every time I felt strong emotions about something, I would make a bad choice, and end up hurting someone.  I thought there were two choices:  either surrender entirely to an orgy of emotion, or kill off emotion altogether.  I imagined saving myself by applying a tourniquet to a useless, hemorrhaging limb.  I wanted that troublemaking aspect of my personality to wither, die, and fall away, leaving me light and agile and able to follow pure reason.

Well, that didn't work.  Every time I thought I had learned to live life cleanly, approaching each day with a resolve to stay in the lines, emotions would sooner or later come roaring back.  They were unstoppable.  I would feel pity for people who didn't deserve it -- sorrow for things I couldn't change --  longing for the unattainable -- affection for the useless.  It was as if I had built the strongest dam in the world, but every time I settled down to get some work done, I'd look down to see the water lapping at my feet again.

Apparently the things I despised most were at the very core of my personality.  I couldn't understand why I was so weak, so shapeless, so base -- and yet I couldn't help myself.

Finally a wise priest sorted it out for me.  Emotions aren't wrong, he explained.  Emotions are a tool.  They're not meant to be an end in themselves, but they aren't something to be ashamed of, any more than you'd be ashamed to have a sense of taste or touch or smell.  These things not only give us pleasure, but they save us from danger:  they prevent us from swallowing food that is rotten, and make us jerk our hand away from the flames.  In the same way, emotions are a gift from God, and He wants us to use them wisely, as a means of discerning His will.

The truth is that sometimes emotions can tell us something that we cannot hear from any other voice.  If you despise emotion, I ask:  haven't you ever been forgiven?  Forgiveness is not an emotion, but pity is -- and pity is often the first step toward forgiveness.  Haven't you ever been respected?  Respect is not an emotion, but admiration is -- and admiration is often the first step toward respect.  Haven't you ever experienced true sexual union?  Sexual union is not an emotion, but desire is -- and desire is often (!) the first step toward sexual union.  Haven't you ever been loved? Love is not an emotion, but affection is -- and affection is often the first movement toward love.

Emotions are like cotyledons -- the first "seed leaves" that a plant sends up.  Think of a maple seedling:  the first two leaves are pale, simple and temporary, and do not resemble the full-grown maple leaf, which is tough and dark and robust.  But the cotyledon comes up first, and supplies the embryonic plant with the first nourishment it needs.  Cotelydons do a necessary job until true leaves are produced, and the transformative work of photosynthesis can begin.

The Church teaches that we have the responsibility to mold and educate our consciences, so that they will be a reliable guide for our actions.  We ought to do something similar when forming our emotional consciences.  We're not supposed to indulge our feelings, but we're not supposed to stamp them out, either.  Rather, we should shape and inform our emotional capacity, to turn it into a useful tool for teaching us about how to treat each other.

It's important to straighten this out, because emotion is not a lady thing, or a sign of weakness:  it something that men and women both have to learn how to use properly, if we are to learn how to treat each other well.  It's easy to see that hysterical basket cases are weak.  But what do you call someone who can't trust himself to withstand anything unexpected, anything not clearly defined, anything that makes us step outside our own experience of the world?  What do we call someone who has to protect himself behind a rigid wall?  Is that strength?  In battle, fortresses make good strategic sense.  In everyday life, though, only the weak and the paranoid hide behind walls.

Forming our emotional faculties is not easy.   So many inconsequential or wrongheaded factors can play into our emotional state.  But God wants us to understand ourselves, not pretend we're someone who we're not.  It's a difficult process, and not one for the faint of heart!  It involves that most dreadful act:  looking frankly and honestly at our own motivations and desires -- in short, at our own souls.