But . . . What If I Don’t Feel Like It?
Dear Father John, How can I overcome my feelings of not wanting to evangelize, especially when there are some people I don’t want to even be around?
SOMETIMES KINDNESS OVERFLOWS effortlessly from a warm and affectionate heart. At other times that same heart feels cold and antagonistic, and even the possibility of kindness is crowded back into a hidden corner of the soul. What’s going on when we feel that way? What are we supposed to do about it? We have to wrestle a little bit with this question, and we will do so by looking at attitudes and actions.
Regarding attitudes, we cannot underestimate the importance of distinguishing between unwilled feelings—spontaneous emotional reactions—and willed decisions. Because of our fallen human nature, our feelings are not always obedient to our faith. We can feel an emotional repugnance toward prayer, for example, even though we firmly believe in the importance and value of prayer. Just so, we can feel an emotional disconnect or distaste toward another person, even though we firmly believe that person is created in God’s image, loved by God unconditionally, redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, called to eternal communion with God in heaven, and therefore deserving of our kindness.
Those spontaneous, negative feelings can trace their origin to passing subjective factors, such as tiredness or a bad mood induced by the weather or hormonal fluctuations. They can also stem from subconscious factors—an intangible quality of the other person, for example, may trigger in us a reaction linked to hidden emotional patterns that were formed before we were even self-conscious. These same subconscious factors can be at play in our natural affections and likes: We feel more or less affinity toward Person A simply because his personality somehow harmonizes well with the emotional needs that have been more or less seared into the substrata of our own personality. In these cases, feelings of repugnance toward someone are completely unwilled. They are not sinful.
And yet they can be valuable for our own growth in self-knowledge. They are giving us information, and we may grow significantly in self-knowledge through reflecting on their origins and what they reveal about our own interior life. Sometimes they are linked to deep wounds that may need some psychological treatment. Often they simply are linked to normal wounds that can become fruitful catalysts for spiritual growth when we identify them and integrate them into our prayer life.
On the other hand, negative emotions toward other people can also be caused by objective factors. If another person habitually makes self-centered decisions and so becomes a burden for those around them, this will become a source of tension and perhaps even anger. We see Jesus, for instance, becoming angry with the Pharisees when they simply refused to listen to him, consistently closing their hearts and minds to his saving message.
These emotional reactions are objectively linked to damaging actions of other people, and they also are valuable as sources of information. They are telling us something about the relationship—something is wrong, something is unjust, something needs to be dealt with or changed in order to reorient the relationship and make it healthy. These emotional reactions are not willfully chosen; they happen almost automatically, so they, too, cannot be sinful. They just are.
Sometimes objective emotional reactions can be exacerbated by subjective factors, forming a potent emotional cocktail that often produces exaggerated reactions.
The Right Attitude
And so, clearly the right attitude toward these emotional experiences has to start with humble acceptance. The emotions are there. They are linked to who you are. They are giving you information. They are not evil in themselves, and so they are nothing to be ashamed of or frustrated about. Accept them. Understand them. But don’t put them in the driver’s seat of your soul.
Our moral responsibility always inhabits the realm of our free actions, so we are not morally responsible for these unwilled emotional reactions. Our responsibility surfaces with regard to how we decide to deal with the emotions that spontaneously surge up in our souls. The bottom line here is that we should not make our choices based solely on emotion, which would be the epitome of immaturity. Rather, we need to make our decisions based on truth—moral truth and the truths of our faith.
Thus, for example, when I feel an emotional distaste toward prayer, I don’t stop praying. Instead, I humbly persevere regardless of the negative feelings, even though I may reflect on why I am feeling that repugnance and try to learn from it.
Acting “As If…”
In the case of repugnance toward others, which threatens to manifest itself in unkindness, the same principle applies. I should treat them, to the extent that is possible for me, as if I felt the love I know they deserve as God’s child. This is virtuous action, a free choice to love, in spite of contrary feelings. And that love means that I treat them with respect and kindness, willing what is good for them. My actions toward them, then, are consistent with my faith and the commandments of the Lord. I don’t torture them, abuse them, talk badly about them behind their back, insult and humiliate them, and so on. I try to help them, affirm them, and encourage them.
Sometimes our subjective repugnance toward someone may be so strong—again, not because we will it, which would be sinful, but just because that’s the way it is—that we actually need to avoid that person in order not to treat him or her poorly. This can be painful for us—we wish we didn’t have such strong negative emotions toward this person. It hurts our pride to experience our brokenness and woundedness so palpably. But the right action is to avoid, as much as it is possible, situations where we know that our emotions have a chance to get the better of us. Pray for that person. Don’t harm that person. Be civil and kind to that person when you have to interact with him or her. But until God’s grace heals you a little bit more, until you develop more virtue, you may need to minimize your contact with that person.
Actions as Reactions
In the second case—the case of the objective negative emotions that flow from identifiably problematic behaviors and behavior patterns—the kind and loving thing to do is to communicate about it. Talk with the other person about the behavior patterns, try to understand what’s behind them, and try to calmly express why they are so bothersome or destructive. Try to help each other adjust the patterns. This is especially the case if your relationship with the person in question is habitual—if you have to continue to interact with him or her on a regular basis.
In some cases, you may run into a person who is not willing to change. He or she won’t acknowledge destructive behaviors or take responsibility for them. In that circumstance, you may need to sever the relationship, at least temporarily. It is not an expression of love to continue enabling someone’s dysfunctional behavior by exhibiting the kind of toleration that tacitly approves of it.
In summary, our spontaneous emotional reactions give us information, and until we are mature enough in Christ that those emotions are in perfect sync with the truths of our faith, they will sometimes clash with those truths. That’s OK. Accept that and seek to understand it. But don’t let it drive your actions and decisions. Pray for grace and strength to always act in accordance with your faith, with God’s will, even if your feelings disagree. Live the apostolate of kindness even when it’s tough. Gradually, with God’s help, your feelings will catch up to your faith and line up more fully with God’s will, increasing the energy at your disposal for loving God and loving your neighbor.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s book “Go! 30 Meditations on How Best to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art: Mirror of A man in a rage, after Charles LeBrun, c.1789, CCA 4.0 International; Mirror of Jesus casting out the money changers at the temple, Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1800s, PD-US, author’s life plus 100 years or less; The Massacre of the Innocents detail, Guido Reni, 1611, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.