Understanding Emotions (Part I of II)

Dear Father John, I’m not usually an emotional person. But sometimes, I can get very angry. And, sometimes I am so moved by something at Mass, it brings me to tears. I know we are not supposed to be attached to things. It seems that the more attached I am to something or someone, the more emotional I get. So, are these emotions bad? Can you help me understand these things called emotions?

JESUS SPECIFIES TWO innate powers of the human soul when he issues the great commandment: He commands us to love God with all our mind and all our strength. These correspond to the specifically spiritual powers of the soul–the intellect and will, our capacity to know and to choose. When he commands us to love God with all our soul, then, it is safe to assume that he is referring to the other powers of the soul. He is commanding us to align those with the core desire, with the heart that seeks God above all things, or that at least wants to seek God above all, because it knows and believes that “God alone suffices,” as St. Theresa of Avila once put it. His command to love God with all our soul is an invitation to integrate our emotions and passions, or psychic drives, into our friendship with him so that the friendship can reach new heights. How do we do that? What does that look like?

The Gift of Emotions

Emotions come from God. God created human nature, and emotions are part of human nature. When we come into contact with external realities, we often perceive that those realities can help or harm us. That perception produces a reaction in our soul, a feeling that moves us toward action. We were created to function that way. We have this internal dynamism that attracts us toward what seems good for us and repels us from what seems bad for us. This is our capacity for feelings or emotions (sometimes called passions). Their complexity and intensity contribute to making human experience as rich and wonderful as it is.

Categories of Emotion

Through the ages, philosophers have identified basic emotions. In modern times, psychologists have offered numerous other classifications. So far, no one has come up with a perfect synthesis of the wisdom of the philosophers and the science of the psychologists. In our effort to understand emotions, GirlFrownStare for post on understanding emotionswe will utilize insights from both sources. An unavoidable obstacle in this effort has to do with language. The words that describe emotions–which are simple reactions to stimuli, simple feelings that have no moral weight in themselves–are often the same words that can also describe moral actions, vices, or virtues. Anger, for example, can refer to the simple emotional reaction of feeling anger, something which is natural and good in itself. But the word anger can also refer to a capital sin, the sin of anger, of choosing to act unjustly, violently, and self-centeredly in response to the feeling of anger. This language problem has no easy solution, so keep in mind that this discussion of feelings will use words such as anger (and love, and hate, and desire) strictly as emotional descriptors, not as moral terms linked to virtue and vice.

Editor’s Notes:

Art: Girl Frown Stare, Stephen Depolo, 13 May 2010, CCA, Wikimedia Commons.

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