The Parable of the “Emotionally Healthy Samaritan”
How does our emotional health help us to be holy?
In Luke’s Gospel we hear of the “good” Samaritan, the kind soul who helps the man beaten by robbers and left for dead at the side of the road. In stark contrast, the priest and Levite walk away, even crossing to the other side of the street to avoid confronting this reality.
We’re told this “good” Samaritan was “moved with compassion” upon seeing this man. In turn this led to him taking the action that Jesus praised. I think there is an insight often overlooked in this story. The teaching of two eminent Catholic psychiatrists, Dr. Anna Terruwe and Dr. Conrad Baars help us to appreciate this parable in another light. With their work firmly grounded in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas they explain that emotions are psychological motors designed by God to naturally move us toward all that’s good, beautiful and true and away from what’s not.
Naturally we need our consciences properly formed to know that which is good and that which isn’t (it’s not always very clear and original sin wreaks some havoc here) but certain “goods”, like coming to the aid of someone in desperate need, are universal and should provoke a natural emotional response.
In this story Jesus described the other two characters who failed to respond as a priest and a Levite, two people who not only should have been moved with compassion as the Samaritan was, but that we can be sure were educated in the good…the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. I believe Jesus is making a point here. What we know will not necessarily lead us to do the right thing. Sure, we have free will and can choose to do good or not but could it be that their problem was ultimately emotional? Why is the Samaritan described as “moved with compassion” and there’s no mention of any such movement with the priest and the Levite?
We need to have a proper understanding of how our emotions were designed by God to work. Contrary to common belief and the popularity of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the intellect and will are not supreme. Our hearts are. The way we think certainly is very important, critically so, but true virtue involves the emotions primarily. Will training alone can often run contrary to the development of authentic virtue and therapies that give primacy only to our thoughts and behaviors quite frequently fall short of effecting true healing and virtuous and ultimately happy living.
Aquinas distinguished between two sets of emotions. The first set, the pleasure or humane emotions move us 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. All of them by their nature want to and need to be guided by reason. But those that move the heart, the humane emotions, are primary. These are connected with our intuitive mind, where we are intimately connected to God. If these emotions are not free we will have trouble leading happy and virtuous lives.
The point of this is crucial: emotional health matters. It matters a great deal. Sure, conscience formation is critical as well, but if we’re not in touch with those humane emotions, if we’re repressing them, we can’t effectively guide them by reason and hence we will be hampered in doing the good.
Interestingly, a great many sins are not so much sins of commission but many, many tragic sins of omission. The inability to be present to the good in others or 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 pressing if we are going to build a civilization of love.
Art: The Good Samaritan, James Tissot, 1886-1894, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.