Sunday, December 8, 2013

Trusting Emotions: Within Reason

In the movies, these are good lines:
"I have a very bad feeling about this."
(Luke Skywalker)

"Luke, trust your feelings!"
(Obi-Wan Kenobi)
I didn't find Obi-Wan Kenobi's advice from the 1977 movie "Star Wars" in lists of movie quotes, which surprised me a bit. I ran into plenty of references to "trust your feelings," though: mostly in discussions or rants about how it's a bad idea.

"Trust Your Feelings?"

I think building a way of life around a movie isn't a particularly good idea. Not even if it's a movie like Star Wars, Shane, or Casablanca.

But I won't rant about folks who took Star Wars' Jedi philosophy seriously. Not today, anyway. For the moment, I'm more interested in emotion, reason, and getting a grip.

"Trust your feelings" isn't always good advice. On the other hand: feelings, emotions, are part of being human. Ignoring them is no more sensible than letting feelings run my life.

Emotions, Reason, and Being Human

Emotions aren't good or bad, by themselves. It's our decisions that make a difference. That's where reason and will come in. Like everyone else, I have free will. I can decide to act, or to not act: and that's another topic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1731, 1767)

Reason isn't faith, but it isn't against faith either. I can learn about the world around me, notice its order and beauty: and conclude that God is ultimately responsible for what I see. I'd be missing quite a bit, of course, which is where God's self-revelation comes in. (Catechism, 35-38)

Will, being able to decide, is built into each of us. That doesn't make deciding easy. I've found that it's becoming a little easier now, maybe because I've been learning how for about six decades.

Emotions aren't supposed to do reason's work: but experiencing them is okay. Depending on them, not so much.

I don't expect an emotional high each time I go to Mass, or read Sacred Scripture, or pray. With my personality and decades spent with major depression, expecting that would be unreasonable.

Worship isn't supposed to be dull or gloomy, though:
"Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth; break into song; sing praise."
(Psalms 98:4)
Image Iss007E10807, courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.
(Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.)
(Words: Psalms 98:4. Image: Pacific Ocean, ISS orbit 2635. (July 21, 2003))

"...A Bad Feeling..." — Evil? Or Indigestion?

If I have a "bad feeling" about something, I should pay attention to the emotion. That's pay attention, not immediately assume that I'm in the presence of evil.

The "bad feeling" might come from having a cold, being tired, fear of the unknown, any number of irrelevant associations: or from a perception of evil.

We're supposed to intuit the good and suspect evil. But we're also supposed to use our brains. Feelings are fine, but I won't know what emotions mean until I think about it. That's where reason comes in. Reason doesn't always rule over emotion: but it's supposed to. (Catechism, 1767, 1771)

I put more stuff about emotions and reason near the end of this post.1

Anger and Ethics

"ANGER: An emotion which is not in itself wrong, but which, when it is not controlled by reason or hardens into resentment and hate, becomes one of the seven capital sins. Christ taught that anger is an offense against the fifth commandment (1765, 1866, 2262)."

"PASSIONS, MORAL: The emotions or dispositions which incline us to good or evil actions, such as love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sadness, and anger (1763)."
(Catechism, Glossary)
It's okay for me to 'feel like' doing something good, or 'not feel like' doing something bad. Those "moral passions" are part of being human, but they're supposed to be controlled by reason.

I don't think that feeling angry about some injustice is wrong. Deliberately staying angry, letting that emotional impulse turn into hate or despair: that would be wrong.

By the way, if I wrote about "passions" instead of "emotions," folks who understand what that means in a Catholic sense would know what I meant. Others might assume that I was writing about only those emotions involving human sexuality: which isn't entirely accurate.2

Conscience: "A Law of the Mind"

Emotions may let me know that I should use my conscience: but I'm supposed to run that "interior voice" with reason: not whatever chemicals my endocrine system is pouring out.

I can 'trust my feelings' to let me know that something's happening. But then it's time for me to start thinking about the action, event, or whatever, that triggered the emotions. Decisions should be based on reason. I don't always live up to that ideal: I'm not perfect, not even close, but I have to try.

Preferring reason to emotion may be easier for me because I'm a very emotional man. It didn't take long for me to realize that emotions can be fun or painful, are often useful — and are quite unreliable as guides for behavior.

More about conscience and reason:
"CONSCIENCE: The interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed. Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action. It moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil (1777-1778). An examination of conscience is recommended as a preparation for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance (1454)."
(Catechism, Glossary)

"A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time 'from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.'60"
"The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.61"
(Catechism, 1796)

"A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience."

"Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them."
(Catechism, 1798-1799)

"Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
"Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.50"
(Catechism, 1778)

The quote that starts with "Conscience is a law of the mind..." is condensed from "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," by John Henry Cardinal Newman, V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Related posts:

1 More about emotion and reason, very briefly:
  • Emotions
    • Are part of the human psyche
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1764)
    • Are not good or evil by themselves
    • Good or evil only as much as they involve a person's
      • Reason
      • Will
      (Catechism, 1767)
    • Love
      • Is the fundamental passion (emotion)
      • Is "aroused by the attraction of the good"
      • "Causes a desire for the absent good..."
      (Catechism, 1765)
    • " 'To love is to will the good of another.'..."
      (Catechism, 1766)
    • Should be governed by reason
      (Catechism, 1768)
    • Strong emotions
      • Are not important in determining
        • Morality
        • Holiness
      • Are used by the will and
        • "Taken up into the virtues"
        • "Perverted by the vices"
        (Catechism, 1768)
  • Reason
    • Is not opposed to faith
      (Catechism, 35)
    • Can
      • Reveal the existence of a personal God
        (Catechism, 35-36)
      • Not give the faith required for intimacy with God
        (Catechism, 35, -38)
    • Is
      • The foundation of ethical principles
        (Catechism, 1951-1960)
      • Used to form ethical judgments
        (Catechism, 1778, 1780, 1783)
      • Wounded by sin
        (Catechism, 1849)
Sin, from a Catholic viewpoint, is not the violation of some arbitrary set of cultural mores:
"SIN: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins (1849, 1853, 1854)."
(Catechism, Glossary)

"Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'121"
(Catechism, 1849)
2 Don't get me wrong. Humans are designed to be male and female, this is a good thing, and yet another topic. (Genesis 1:27, 31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331-2391)

The Passion of my Lord on the Cross is - yet another topic. And an important one. (Catechism, 571, 598-618)

The moral passions aren't just about sex, either: which is why I generally use "ethical" instead of "moral," and I've been over this before.


Stay At Home Cowboy said...

I found your blog while searching for Catholic Conversion Narratives. Yours is remarkably similar to mine, so--of course--I found it fascinating!!

I enjoy your writing and the thought behind it, so I've bookmarked your blog and hope to enjoy many more of your posts.

Brian Gill said...

Stay At Home Cowboy,

Thanks! New posts show up every Friday and Sunday morning, for the most part.

Sorry about the delay, responding - and 'clearing' your comment. I'd join the National Association of Procrastinators, but keep putting it off. ;)

Edward Sosa said...

As an artistic, meloncholic hispanic with ADD that participates in a charismatic prayer community, I can definitely relate to an emotional disposition. Really great insight, as I always seem to try suppressing that emotion in order to hear the 'whispers' of the Holy Spirit over myself. I can't express how much I got out of this. Bookmarking this link.

Brian Gill said...

Thank you, Edward Sousa, for your good words.

About "insight," pretty much all I did was draw on several thousand years' of collected wisdom. ;)

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.