The Emotional Heart

As of the time I write this, more than 80 people have been killed in protests in Egypt as people attempt to wrest control over the nation from one another. Locally, a young man pulled a knife on a streetcar and ordered everyone off, only to be shot dead by police. Of course, there is also the latest inanity from Anthony Wiener and his seeming inability to stop foolish sexual exploits.

On the other side of things, my wife was just encouraged to keep on making more friends while waiting for things at the cancer center. A friend of mine just commented on Facebook about the joy of fresh vegetables. A pro golfer just walked (bolted?) away from what could have been a million dollar win when he got the call that his wife went into labor. And I just killed an hour this morning playing a video game because it amuses me.

Anger. Fear. Lust. Bonding. Pleasure. Love. Amusement.

There is a tendency in our culture to say that we are rational creatures, and we are. But the reality is that our emotions are enormous players in the game of life. Our emotions provide the motivation for us to move one direction or another, to do this or that, to think about X vs. Y, or even to believe one way or the other.

There is also a tendency in our culture, and I find this particularly strong among Reformed-influenced protestants, to label being so influenced by our emotions as dangerous, and we need to think rather than feel.

Here’s the problem:
We can’t.

Unless somebody’s severed the right parts of your spinal cord or damaged certain parts of your frontal cortex, you do not have the capacity to go about life, disconnecting your emotions from your thinking (unless you’re talking about straight-up analytical functions like mathematical operations, and even those can be tinged with distaste or satisfaction). Every other thing we do is dripping with emotion whether we feel it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Oh, some people might believe they have been trained to think in such a way that they are rationally analyzing things without emotions swaying them one way or another, but all that really does is separate off emotions from awareness. Those emotions are still there, tugging and nudging in unconscious ways. Neurologically speaking, you can’t escape them, just convince yourself that you have.

We may be rational creatures, but we are not purely rational creatures.
We are also highly emotional creatures, and we need to accept this.

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s how God designed us. We’re emotionally driven people. The problem comes when we let twisted emotions drive us or when we deny that our emotions drive us at all. Many of those people in Egypt are surely letting their anger drive them in excess, unconcerned in the moment whether those emotions are appropriate or whether the actions they are driven toward are commensurate with the circumstances. George Zimmerman and Anthony Wiener, on the other hand, are likely denying that their emotions are playing any part in what they did, not just to the world, but to themselves, and they may just as likely be denying how much their anxiety is playing into how they’re defending themselves.

No part of life, no part of the decisions you make, is unaffected by emotion. But we hand control over to those emotions when we deny the sway they have over us, when we tell ourselves that our emotions aren’t a factor in what we’re doing and choosing.

This being the case, the so often stated maxim that we shouldn’t let our emotions factor into important decisions is fallacious. Even damaging. The better move is to ask what emotions are already in play and how are they affecting your decisions and actions.

Jesus said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” Surely emotions are part of that good and bad, and if things are being brought out whether we like it or not, surely it’s wise to be attentive to those emotions, to be aware of them and consider how they play into our thoughts, actions, and character.

How much do we recognize just how emotional we are? (Even and perhaps especially us “unemotional” types!) As persons? As churches? As the church? As humanity on the whole?
What would change if you were to recognize and accept how much emotion plays a part in your life?

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5 responses

  1. Matthew,
    I really liked this. But paradoxically, isn’t being “attentive to those emotions, to be aware of them and consider how they play into our thoughts, actions, and character” submitting them to rational analysis?

    July 31, 2013 at 7:35 pm

  2. Thanks, Gabe. Glad you appreciated it.
    As for your question, if emotions are part of everything that goes on in our little neurologically complicated heads, then even rational analysis can’t be separated from your emotions. I mean, would you even bother being attentive to or rationally analyzing your emotions if you didn’t want to (or want something that it potentially leads to), want being part of the emotions?

    July 31, 2013 at 9:03 pm

  3. Matthew,
    I think what I’m getting at is there seems to be some tension between “we can’t escape our emotions” and “we shouldn’t let twisted emotions drive us”.

    Suppose I am confronting a particularly strong emotion that I know to be harmful – say, to my marriage. It is certainly true that I have emotional reasons for wanting a good marriage, but at the time those can feel pretty remote. In moments of success, what it *feels* like is that a separate part of me steps in to say firmly, “no, you don’t really want what you think you want”. I guess I am thinking in terms of the classical tripartite soul here.

    August 1, 2013 at 8:31 pm

  4. I really appreciate your conversation, Gabe. It’s helping me further formulate my thoughts and others’ perspectives on the ideas I’m working with.

    When I think of twisted emotions driving us, I think of, say, the protesters or security forces in Egypt. Many of them are surely enraged and acting primarily out of that rage. They know they’re angry, and they probably can even explain why they’re angry, but few probably want to take the time to evaluate the appropriateness of their level of anger and to consider if there might be other things feeding into it that aren’t related to the circumstances at hand. Few protesters are going to ponder, “Is my anger and behavior perhaps excessive and maybe fueled by things beyond just these circumstances?” Few security officers are going to consider, “Could I be using my aggression as a means of taking out my frustration with my job, boss, wife, living arrangements, etc.?” Neither side is likely to say, “Am I maybe painting the other side in my mind as all evil in order to match with my emotions?” No, many are just going to let those emotions paint their picture of the other side. They say, “I’m angry because they’re wrong!” when what’s really going on is more likely, “I’m angry, *therefore* they’re wrong!” or even “I’m angry, therefore there is nothing right in them at all!”

    Twisted emotions are twisted for a reason. But if we are never aware of our emotions, we can never take the time to consider what the reasons might be. If your emotions in some instance are potentially harmful to your relationship with your wife, it’s one thing to say, “But I know I should do something different,” and then try to put the effort in to doing something different. And sometimes that’s exactly what ought to be done. If you’re worn out from work but she needs help with the dishes, you may have to push yourself to do what you’re not eager to do in that moment. But suppose it’s not that simple, and you’re not sure what’s making you want to be a stinker. Then it can be helpful to ask, “What am I feeling that is making me inclined to do something unhelpful to our relationship? And where did those feelings come from?” Awareness of the feelings and how they might have come about can give an additional bit of psychological leverage to make a more balanced choice. For an example pulled out of the air, “Oh, I feel anxious because I tend to assume people are manipulating me with guilt, but when I stop and think about it, I don’t think that’s what she’a actually doing. I’m just interpreting it wrong.” (Or maybe she is, and then you can sit down in an appropriate moment and discuss that.)

    What I hear in you is as if there are multiple desires and motivations running around, vying for dominance. The more you are aware of those feelings and things that might be generating those feelings, particularly things that aren’t actually relevant to the present circumstances, the more you can sort through them and choose well rather than letting them take over and determine your course for you.

    Are you ever going to be able to choose perfectly? Probably not. There’s always that little sliver of sin that’s going to be there, throwing a monkey wrench into things. But being able to choose better is certainly possible.

    August 1, 2013 at 9:20 pm

  5. Matthew,
    Yeah, that makes sense.

    August 2, 2013 at 12:55 am

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