For many people, emotions can feel uncontrollable and overwhelming…a big source of stress. To them I would say, “They’re only feelings.” Even though they may feel strong and unsettling at times, they remain simply feelings. We have a choice whether we react to them or act on them. They come and go, ebb and flow, and can change quickly. Often simply labeling them and letting them be allows them to pass without too much upheaval. But too often we react with other emotions or thoughts, based on our feelings, that may not square with actual facts. When we do, our feelings can take on a trajectory of their own and cause needless distress.
On the other hand, feelings have a crucially important role in our lives that I would never want to minimize. Taking the time to understand them better, respect them, and use them more wisely is critical to living happy and peaceful lives – both as individuals and as a society.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the master at explaining how God created the human person, emotions, by their nature, want to, and need to be guided by reason. In our scientific and modern world, however, reason frequently takes primacy over our emotions and when that happens, troubles invariably follow. It’s kind of a bass-ackwards approach, as the saying goes. (Think political correctness.)
So how can we understand our emotional life and how can we stop feeling victim to our feelings and instead feel like victors over them?
Let’s start by looking at the word emotion. If you take it apart, you’ll notice that the word motion makes up the bulk of it. Hence, emotions literally move us. Dr. Anna Terruwe and Dr. Conrad Baars called emotions psychological motors. That, of course, begs the question, to where do they move us and how? And that answer is simple…emotions are designed to move us toward all that’s good, beautiful and true, and away from what is not. Hmmm…
Now we’re getting into philosophy…and well we should. To attempt to understand the human person, especially in his emotional and spiritual aspects (and yes, the two are connected) mere science isn’t enough. The scientific method seeks to understand physical laws and properties. Now since we are spiritual, emotional, and physical beings, physiology plays a definite role in the emotional life of the human person. Each emotion has a physiological component to it. But physiology can’t really define meaning. And unless we know the goal, knowing the chemical formulations won’t avail us of much.
So, onto Christian anthropology and Divine Revelation. Our Catholic faith teaches that God created us for happiness. He placed the first man and woman into the Garden of Eden, which was filled with delights for all of their senses. They were in harmony with nature, with God and with one another. But original sin messed that all up. Losing trust in God’s goodness, they sought the forbidden fruit…because it waspleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom. As you see, their natural inclination of being drawn toward beauty played a significant role in their fall. The problem was in their misguided desire for wisdom. Not wanting true wisdom that could come only from their Father who created them, they sought to do an end run around Him so they could be equal to Him. Equality is quite a tempting idea, even in our day and age…and clearly, it’s nothing new (but that’s another topic).
Hence, the human person was designed with an innate attraction for all that’s good, beautiful, and true. Original sin can cause distortions in what we perceive to be good, beautiful, and true and can lead us to pursue many things that actually militate against goodness. But it’s still the perceived goodness that attracts the human person. On the other side of it, we are naturally repelled by all that is bad, ugly and false. Hence when promoting some evil, advertisers lure us with perceived goodness. It’s rare the devil appears with tail and horns. Instead he tempts us through our fallen nature by confusing us by making sin appear good. Remember that he tricked Eve with a confusing question.
So, how does this emotional life work?
Aquinas, in his treatise on the passions, which we now refer to as emotions, taught that there are two sets of emotions. The first set he called the pleasure or humane emotions. These include love, desire and joy; hate, aversion and sadness. These move us interiorly in our hearts. The second set he termed utilityor utilitarian emotions. These include courage and fear, hope and despair and anger. These utility emotions move us to action in response to the movements of the first set of emotions.
Reason’s job is to guide the expression of these emotions. Conscience is an important component of reason and must be well and properly formed. A big problem in our modern world is a lack of adequate and proper conscience formation. Hence, without an understanding of what is actually good based on the nature of the human person, many fall into problems by living apart from the moral law. The evidence is all around us. But instead of admitting it, many attempt to jettison that moral law altogether. If we change the law, they reason, those things that used to cause us problems…you know, little things like adultery, fornication, drug abuse, greed and corruption …will no longer trouble us. It’s only the guilt foisted upon us by the Church that causes our distress they assert.
The problem with that approach is this: when it comes to the moral law, like physical laws, they can’t be changed by majority vote. Sure, we can change the civil law and increase the speed limit, but we can’t change the law of physics that results in destruction when we hit a hard object at that increased speed. The same holds true for the moral law. We can redefine it all we want…but we can’t prevent the damage to the human person that inevitably results when we transgress it. There’s a reason anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs are the most prescribed drugs in our culture. Emetics would explode in popularity as well if we attempted to change the laws on selling tainted foods.
So, if it’s reason’s job to guide the emotions and if the utility emotions serve the pleasure emotions, what can we deduce from that? Clearly, the humane emotions must be pretty important if everything is ordered to serve them. And that’s true.
The humane emotions are associated with the intuitive mind and the intuitive mind is generally where God speaks to us. So, getting in touch with these humane emotions and having our emotions rightly ordered with reason and conscience is of paramount importance not only to healthy relationships with others, but in order to improve our ability to hear God.
For a deeper understanding of your emotional life, we highly recommend Feeling and Healing Your Emotions by Dr. Conrad Baars. More information and audio resources can be found atwww.baarsinstitue.com.
If you’re struggling with your emotions, speaking to a counselor can reap big rewards. Remember, God created you for happiness. Don’t settle for simply the absence of pain. There’s so much more that He wants for you.
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