A big source of stress for numerous people is from being overwhelmed by difficult emotions that are held in and not being dealt with effectively, such as anxiety, fear, anger, or sadness. It may not even require something outwardly difficult and immense to feel so inundated. As a result, many become unable to cope, withdrawn, indecisive, frustrated, or irritable and have difficulty in personal and professional relationships. Life becomes a series of ups and downs. Taking the time to understand emotions better, respect them, and use them more wisely is critical to living happy and peaceful lives – both as individuals and as a society.
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?
We can look to St. Thomas Aquinas to assist us since he is regarded the master at explaining how God created the human person. Aquinas is ranked among the most influential intellectuals (and was declared a Doctor of the Church) for his teachings in combining the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason. In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas explained the passions, which we now refer to as emotions, by their nature, want to, and need to be guided by reason. We need to then have a proper understanding of how our emotions were designed by God to work.
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. Two eminent Catholic psychiatrists, 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.
The repression of our humane emotions leads to sad consequences in a society starved for love.
The need for a solid understanding of the emotional life is profound and imperative
if we are going to build a civilization where love can flourish.
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 was pleasing 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 understanding that true wisdom could come only from their Father who created them, they sought to do an end run around Him, thinking they could then be equal to Him.
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 work 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.
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.
How Does This Emotional Life Work?
St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between two sets of passions (emotions). The first set, the pleasure or humane emotions move us interiorly in our hearts. These include love, desire, joy and hate, aversion and sadness (and the many variants thereof). The second set, our utility or utilitarian emotions, move us to action. These include courage and fear, hope and despair, and anger.
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 discard 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.
Getting in touch with our 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.
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 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.
If you are struggling with emotions that feel uncontrollable and overwhelming, speaking to a Catholic therapist can help you to be free to lead a virtuous life with abiding happiness. The repression of our humane emotions leads to sad consequences in a society starved for love. The need for a solid understanding of the emotional life is profound and imperative if we are going to build a civilization where love can flourish.
For a deeper understanding of your emotional life, highly recommend – Feeling and Healing Your Emotions by Dr. Conrad Baars.
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