Feeling is a force God gives you for willing and working with greater energy and constancy. But, like steam in a locomotive, it is a chaotic force. If well channeled by reason (with its safety valves and opportune expansion and release), it will be exceedingly useful to you.
Do Not Let Feelings Govern You
Make no change under the influence of feelings. To have as a norm of action “because I like to” is the same as to take a trolley car or bus without bothering about where it is going or only because it is more comfortable or is shinier than another. Likewise, to stop working “because it is a bother” or “troublesome” is to renounce success, joy, glory, and even your own salvation.
To want something only because there is no other way out is the way a slave acts.
To want it because it is no trouble (following likes or impulses) is the way an animal acts.
To want it in spite of the bother (guided by reason or duty) is the way a rational human being acts.
To want even the bother of it (with your eyes on the ideal or on God) is the way a hero or saint acts.
The child and the socially maladapted person love or hate, work or stop working, only because of their likes and dislikes, because reason has not been developed or has been inhibited.
Govern Your Feelings
Restrain exaggeration of feelings. Do not give too much importance to them, or to what pleases or displeases you, or to what you fear or desire. For experience tells us that feeling heightens colors, exaggerates good or evil, obscures and alters truth.
For example, do the words or behavior of another irritate you? Then your feelings will make you tend to think that he has a deliberate bad intention (whereas he probably acted only out of light-mindedness or without full reflection). They will even persuade you that he has yet worse plans for the future. Does the mailman or telegraph messenger bring you bad news? At least your imagination will immediately run riot and overload the unopened envelope with the blackest shadows. “Somebody is dead,” you may think. Or, “Some relative has gone bankrupt.” Do you feel a little unwell? Your uncontrolled thought will tell you, “It must be tuberculosis, or heart trouble, or the beginnings of insanity.” Is it a case of not making progress in your studies, or in virtue, or prayer? Do you find yourself sad and discouraged and wish to give up the spiritual life you adopted? Does it seem to you that you were not made for this? In all these cases you have lost control of your feelings by letting them become exaggerated. Convince yourself that the real situation is much better than your emotional reaction to it.
Control Your Thoughts
Do not give free rein to their deceptive arguments. Avoid their exaggerations and transfers to other fields. Think about something else and, above all, do not change your plans or make important resolutions under the sway of feeling. Let a day go by. Let a night go by, too. “Consult your pillow.” Then, when your feelings are calmed, you will be disposed for work and you will see that “the lion is not so fierce as he is painted.” With regard to mental illness as a dreaded possibility one must discount fear; believe psychiatrists when they say that those who become demented were the ones who had no fear of becoming so.
With his fine sense of psychology St. Ignatius traces out for us three very wise rules for governing ourselves when a depressing feeling comes over us.
Firstly, in time of desolation (that is, when you are discouraged or sad, without light or strength, without peace or consolation, or when temptation blinds you) make no change, but continue with the plans you made when you had peace, light, and consolation.
Secondly, think of the fact that this state will pass and that light and joy will return. Encourage the thoughts and feelings you had before the desolation came.
Thirdly, act against the very desolation. Do the opposite of what you feel yourself inclined to do. Lengthen your prayer, for example, or perform even more mortifications.
In the Palace of Feelings there are brilliant halls where dwell optimism, hope, love, valor, and joy. And there are dark cellars, lurking places of discouragement, sadness, fear, worry, anger. The mistress of the Palace, the will, has to pass through all its rooms but can delay wherever she wishes. We should not give too much importance to fears or sadness when they come. We should not habitually and voluntarily stay with them, but pass on to the halls of joy and optimism.
Open the Safety Valve
There are states of feeling in which repression can cause fatigue, suffering, and illness. Such are the apparent conflicts between the commands of duty and the demands of honor, love, or instinct. Frequently the mere manifestation of these to your mental guide or spiritual director will lighten them, reveal the solution, and cure them.
During the First World War psychiatrists were surprised to note the greater number of cases of severe mental illness among English soldiers than among the French. They investigated the causes and found that the former had been brought up in the atmosphere of believing that an Englishman should not feel fear and that it would be a national disgrace to give any sign of it. This mentality imposed on many individuals a violent struggle, repression of unavoidable feelings, and finally mental disequilibrium. When this mentality was modified, there were fewer victims.
There are four kinds of difficulties or internal conflicts which we should make known as soon as possible to a prudent director lest they poison our wills or at least tire our minds unnecessarily.
1. Acts that weigh down our conscience with moral responsibility.
2. Worrisome practical doubts that we cannot solve, or obsessing temptations to evil.
3. Tormenting indecision in important matters (this may be a result of the preceding).
4. Oppressing fears or sadness that we do not know how to control.
When a tumor is opened, the victim is relieved. So a release of these emotional conflicts with a prudent friend or spiritual guide and, above all, the divine release of them in sacramental Confession, roots out of our soul all that poisonous overload. It brings us so much peace, joy, and encouragement that non-Catholic doctors of different countries agree that if Confession had not been established in the Church as a spiritual medicine, they would have had to prescribe it themselves as a treatment for emotional ailments rising from disordered feelings.
You should also open the safety valve of dignified affection in the expansions of family love, true friendship, spiritual confidences, love of your neighbor, love of souls, and love of God. All your mental energy does not flow into the channel of your understanding when you try to close off or block up the channel of feeling. There must be some release of feeling.
Close the Escape Valve to Brute Instinct
and Disordered Passions
A fourth-year medical student once came to see me after a lecture. He could not sleep, study, or fix his attention. He was wallowing in discouragement, depression, and profound sadness. He had to stop attending classes. He had been studying intensely, at the same time had to attend to troublesome family affairs, and was also worrying about an illness of his father’s. He consulted an atheistic psychiatrist who recommended certain injections and that he give vent to his sexual instinct. This latter, according to the diagnosis, was being repressed and was the cause of his illness. The young man followed this foolish advice only to find himself even more confused, sad, and worried. Once the true cause of his sickness was found and all was made right with God through Confession, he began the work of re-education joyfully. He recovered his ability to sleep in two days.
Apparently there are not a few atheistic psychiatrists who follow Freud (as they say) and want to re-establish lost equilibrium by subjecting the angel to the brute, the soul to the body, the higher mental activities to the lower, the conscious to the unconscious. Dr. Vittoz and his whole school, together with all spiritual psychiatrists, are in revolt against such an aberration.
You should also do away with useless confidences which are born of emotionalism or impulse. Never recount to any person you meet, just to console yourself, what you suffer or fear, desire or plan. This might give you some momentary consolation (that of yielding to the impulse), but the sad ideas will impress you more in the telling and make you more their slave. If you tell them to your friends, you make them sad; if to your enemies, you make them glad. The ills of another, and much less the details of what you suffer, feel, or fear, are not of much interest to anyone even though his charity or courtesy lead you to think so. On the other hand, if you forget yourself in the affairs of other people, you will at the same time get your own feelings under control, learn something useful, and acquire an affable and sympathetic personality.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Peace Be with You by Fr. Narciso Irala, S.J. which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.