Emotions in a Fallen World (Part I of II)

Dear Father John, my very emotional nature often gets me in trouble. Why do we have emotions in the first place? What’s the purpose of them?

THE NINE BASIC emotions are just the raw material for this complex, powerful, and intriguing dimension of the human soul, the dimension of our feelings. The varied reality of day-to-day experience rarely stirs up any single one of them with perfect purity and clarity. Rather, they get mixed together in potent, and sometimes disturbing, combinations that include innumerable variations of intensity and hue. Life is simply too rich and multifaceted to fit neatly into predictable and easily manageable emotional boxes. Jesus alluded to this when he advised us to try to rise to the challenge of each day without fretting over vain attempts to control the bigger picture: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6:34).

The Variability of Emotions

The intensity of feelings will depend on just how significantly we judge that the stimulating object will promote or inhibit what is good for us. The greater the good or the more threatening the evil, the more intense the emotion: someone on the verge of winning a million dollars, for example, will usually feel more intense anticipation than someone on the verge of winning five dollars. Likewise, the specific quality or character of the object will give the basic emotion different flavors or levels of appeal or repugnance. The attraction of a beloved person, for example, will feel wildly different than the attraction of a good night’s sleep. Objects can even both attract and repel us at the same time, under different aspects. Such is the complexity of the human experience.

JealousyAndFlirtationVariations in external objects are not the only factors affecting our emotional world. Sometimes emotions seem to surge up from within, not responding to external stimuli at all, but preconditioning how we respond to those stimuli. These passionate emotional impulses are sometimes simply referred to as the “passions of the soul.” Moods, for example, can color our emotional reactions, tainting with dejection what should objectively be hope-filled, or intensifying anger beyond what the situation truly deserves. Moods and other internal influences can flow from simple biological processes, from hormonal fluctuation or indigestion or exhaustion, for example. But they can also have their roots in subconscious emotional patterns linked to past experiences. In a fallen world, no one escapes trauma of some kind or another. No one grows up with perfect parents and a perfectly balanced personality. The internal and external harmony that God built into creation was shattered by original sin. The journey to human maturity necessarily involves facing and coping with our own confusing internal divisions (what theologians call concupiscence) and with pain caused by the sins of those around us. Even before we are fully aware of ourselves and the world, our coping mechanisms are already conditioning the way we experience and handle emotions, and this conditioning is not always healthy for the long run.

Editor’s Notes:

Art: Jealousy and Flirtation, Haynes King, 1874, PD-US copyright expired, Wikimedia Commons.

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