I am probably not alone in confessing that when it comes to the emotions I often find myself at their mercy, lured by wanting to feel good or unraveling the reasons why I don’t, too often swept down the road towards a multitude of vices. Months after reading Solomon’s book a faithful friend encouraged me to take a second look at his approach. Unruly emotions are often able to confuse and sidetrack us from the path of discipleship and right living. Perhaps Solomon’s perspective could offer something useful in learning to live with a sense of ‘emotional integrity’.
Solomon approaches the topic of emotions from fields of philosophy, psychology, and physiology. Yet he begins simply by asking, ‘What are emotions?’ A classic idea proposed by the Stoics is that emotions are evaluative thoughts or judgements that form how we engage the world. An interesting idea, but how does it work? The concept wisely discerns a causal factor behind our emotions, seeing their source in the cognitive thoughts or beliefs we hold. These primary judgements form and shape how we engage with the world.
As simple as this may sound, these underlying beliefs can be difficult to detect as they are in a sense the air we breathe. I recently found myself in an all too familiar situation at my place of employment: caught up in work demands, worrying about meeting goals and timelines, scheming how to improve things, losing sleep, hoping for relief as weeks turned into months. What thoughts and beliefs would propel me to engage with the world in this manner! I had to confess that it must be a thought I hold dear as it seemed to begin to shape my life, in spite of my efforts to contain it.
Second, an idea that follows the first, emotions are actions with intentionality. Now we don’t often consider emotions to be actions with intention or motive. How are our emotions actions with intentionality? If, as above, emotions are our evaluative thoughts or judgements, then our actions that follow are literally how we choose to respond. In my case, the choice to work hard, to sacrifice other responsibilities to family, community, and personal relationships had to be seen as intentional. I could not deny that I chose personal success and approval, at least to some extent, over the other values in my life. It’s not difficult to see how these emotional responses become unconscious strategies for living, in spite of whether they are effective in supporting our deeper values or not.
So, what to do with this self that is formed by personal history, culture and biology, and that determines how we engage others and the world? This is the language of patterns and of life lived from our subjective and limited view point. It is no wonder that we often find ourselves hurting those around us, unable to realize our deeper values. In the words of Paul the apostle, “doing what we do not want to do rather than what we had intended to do.” To this Solomon offers his third suggestion. We will be stuck until we undergo the task of reflection, accepting the difficult path of uncovering our judgements and discerning whether they reflect reality and our deeper values.
If this doesn’t evoke a cry of anguish I don’t know what will. How do we see what is there and turn to make choices that reflect our deeper values? I think Solomon may have been idealistic in suggesting that self-reflection can uncover these truths. We deceive ourselves so easily. I was reminded of a quote by Bonhoeffer, “God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.” As one who seeks to follow Christ, I am called to seek after truth through prayer and with the aid of others. Spiritual disciplines show us that wisdom is not sought in ourselves but in honest prayer and dialogue.
Lastly, given what we have gleaned through reflection, we need to accept responsibility and choose how we will engage the world. Sarte exclaimed, “No excuses!” We are responsible for our actions in the world. Existentialism has helped us to value our experience but there is a danger in assuming that authenticity is a product of living by our emotions - I can vouch for that one. Rather emotional integrity requires that we accept the suffering that results from living according to our deeper values. In all likelihood, greater emotional conflict can be assumed rather than less, as our values will conflict with other choices for comfort or approval.
So how do I take all this into my work situation? Somehow, the external situations need not change but we can pray for the intention to respond from outside our personal needs. To say this from a Christian perspective, I can join in the Lord’s prayer ‘Thy will be done,’ rather than my own. Even a small shift in imagination can set us on a better course. Thanks to my faithful friend who offered encouragement to dig a little deeper and Robert Solomon who provided a lens to aid the digging. Now for the next step.
Thank you to Robert Solomon for his passionate exploration of this topic. He passed away shortly before the official publication of his last book, True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions are Really Telling Us.
The Passions by Robert Solomon (1976)
True to Our Feelings by Robert Solomon (2007)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1954)