. April 15, 1981
Perhaps at this point a brief review is in order concerning what we have discussed so far about the emotions. You will recall that we defined all emotions in terms of feelings of like and dislike. We also said that all the emotions could be roughly divided into two main classes: desires and emotions proper. In our last letter we finished our discussion of desires, and the time has come to turn to emotions—what they are and how they work within us.
While desires are the lower activities of the will, emotions are of a higher sort. They are a higher sort because, while they include in them and presuppose the presence of desires, they go beyond desires also. They are more than mere desires. We can, I think, divide them into three classes: feelings, emotions proper, and passions. The distinction is not absolute, and the one class tends somewhat to run over into other classes; but the distinction will serve, it seems to me, to help us understand what they are about.
The first question then is: what are feelings?
In general, feelings are reactions to particular sensations which we have. We are, as we have had occasion to notice in other connections, created by God in such a way that we stand in contact with the world about us by means of our senses. Every single part of the creation is available to us by means of our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. And, through the creation about us with all that it contains, we also stand in contact with God Himself Who makes Himself known through the creation.
Now, as this creation impinges upon us and enters, via our senses and nervous system, into our souls, we are affected by all these things. When we are affected by them, it is also because we have an impression of like or dislike, because, as we said a moment ago, feelings of like and dislike are at the bottom of all our emotions.
Some of these feelings are rather general, vague, and indefinite. We cannot give a clear account of them. They are there, and we vaguely sense that they are there; but they are too indefinite really to explain them fully or describe them clearly. There are several examples of this which we can mention and which will, perhaps, help to clarify the matter. There are times when we get out of bed in the morning and already we do not feel very happy or contented. We talk about getting out of bed on “the wrong side.” We feel out of sorts and dissatisfied, but if anyone would ask us what the trouble is, we would be hard pressed to explain. We do not know exactly how we feel and we cannot give account for our feelings. All is too indefinite. The same thing can happen during the course of the day. We have feelings of unease, of tension, of discontent; we have feelings that something not very pleasing is going to happen, that trouble is lurking around the corner, that things are not going to go well. Uneasy and even somewhat frightened and disturbed, we cannot lay our fingers on precisely what is the problem.
It also happens, although less often, that we have a deep sense of ease, of happiness, of well-being and contentment so that we face life relaxed and confident, happy and composed, and we are satisfied with a deep satisfaction that all is well. But if we were asked to explain how this came about and why it is that we feel as we do, we would find it very difficult to explain why we feel as we do.
Now the reason why all this is true is that we are much more affected by the creation about us than we often recognize. When God created man, He created man as an organic part of the creation, one with the whole creation, a part of it, dependent upon it, related to it, united together with it in inescapable bonds. And so, as a part of the creation, we are affected by it. We are affected by almost everything in it. We are affected by colors, sounds, weather, temperature, seasons, changes in the seasons, changes in the weather, wind, rain, sunshine, cloudy days, the singing of the birds, the honking of the geese, the barking of dogs, etc. Most of the time, we are almost totally unaware of all these things which affect us; but the fact of the matter is that they do. Doctors tell us (and we have no reason to doubt the truth of this) that little babies are affected by the colors of the walls in their bedrooms, by the sounds of the home, whether they be sounds of happiness or quarrelling, by the music which is being played, whether it be sweet and soft or raucous and discordant. We all know how cloudy days can make us blue, how changes in the weather can make us restless, how the change of seasons is the time when a lot of people who have problems see their problems multiply and their mental and spiritual equilibrium go out of balance. We have only a small conception of how we are, every moment, affected by all these things.
In addition to all this, we are affected by those people with whom we come into contact during the course of the day. We are sensitive to moods and feelings of other people. We not only hear what they are saying, but we detect behind their words, feelings and emotions, attitudes and dispositions—all of which affect us and to which we react. The more intimate the relationships of life, the more this is true. If, once again, I may use but one illustration to make this clear: it has struck me forcibly that God gives to parents a great responsibility to set (if I may use the expression) the general mood and atmosphere in the home. And perhaps it is even true that the father, since he is the head of the house, is more responsible for this even than the mother. There are times, and I speak of myself because I know myself best, when I get up in the morning feeling rather out of sorts and not too happy with things—for reasons which are not very clear. If I come to the breakfast table feeling this way, it is not very long and the whole family, gathered about the table, is also feeling out of sorts. The children are quarrelling and bickering with each other, and every one is soon unhappy. But the opposite can also be true. If I make up my mind that, regardless of how I feel, I will be happy at the table, this happiness soon pervades everyone. In all our life it is this way; we are affected greatly by those with whom we have contact and fellowship. And the closer that fellowship, the more we are affected by these people.
Yet, while all this is rather vague and general, there are more definite feelings also which we have. When we are unconsciously affected by our surroundings, the feelings which are the result are ill-defined. But when the sensations which enter our soul are definite, conscious, clearly defined and easily identified, then too the resulting feelings are much more definite.
These well-defined feelings we can also divide into two classes: the sensuous and the spiritual. The sensuous feelings are feelings of hunger, thirst, cold, warmth, comfort, and such like things. They are feelings which are predominantly the result of sensations of the body. They are brought about by physical well-being or discomfort primarily. But there are also the spiritual feelings. Among these (and there are literally dozens of them) we can count the feelings of shame, aversion, revulsion, abhorence, hatred, fright, and such like things on the one hand; and thankfulness, honor, awe, love, pity, joy, and such like things on the other hand. They too are brought about by sensations; but we can easily define them. We know why we feel the way we do. We can give an account of these feelings and explain their origin. We can clearly connect them with experiences which we have had and with the objects which come to our attention.
Secondly, there are also emotions. The basic difference between feelings and emotions is that emotions are much stronger than feelings. They are, generally speaking, stronger because, on the one hand, they violently shake the soul, and, on the other hand, they are of such a kind that they affect the body. They are the feelings which make us blush, which make our hearts beat faster, which make our fists clench, which make a tightness come to our throats, which make our stomachs begin to churn inside us. It is not difficult to see that they are also basically rooted in the fundamental feelings of like and dislike; but our liking and disliking are so much stronger and so much more powerful that the effect of certain things on us moves us so deeply that we are visibly and noticeably shaken and moved by what has happened.
And, finally, there are passions. Passions too are feelings. But they are even stronger feelings than emotions. They are, in fact, so strong that they make of a man a slave who is blind to reason and understanding and who reacts without any control at all over what he is doing. He acts in a blind rage, so we say. He acts with thoughtless passion so that he is so overcome by his emotions that he cannot control what he is doing. He is simply a slave to the emotions which he is experiencing, and he acts without thought or reason behind what he does. We all know what this is like. We speak of it sometimes, rather mildly, as “losing one’s temper,” when it is anger that lies behind it.
So these then are the emotions.
We ought briefly to comment on them, although much of what has to be said we have said already in earlier articles. But there are especially three points which we ought to make.
In the first place, because God has created us as rational and moral creatures, our emotions ought always to be under the control of our minds and wills. This is contrary to all prevailing theory because current thinking is that we must let our emotions rule in our lives and simply be led in all that we do by them. But this is not only very wicked, but also leads to all kinds of trouble. It is worth our note in passing that, nevertheless, such is the life of many also within the Church.
In the second place, if the emotions are to be under the control of the mind and will, it follows that passions, as we defined them, are always wrong. There are indeed people who are more inclined to let their passions get the best of them than others. There are those who easily “lose their tempers.” But, no matter what may be the case, it is always very sinful to be so overcome with emotion, whether it be anger or lust, that we act unthinkingly and without knowing what we are doing.
In the third place, because all emotions are basically like and dislike, we must so learn to live in our emotional life that our likes and dislikes are ruled and directed by the Word of God. This is the person who, also in his emotional life, lives according to the will of His God. And great blessing comes upon him.
Fraternally in Christ,