The Right Use of Emotion


Education, which is worthy of the name, must expand all the human faculties with all their activities and properties…They must be such as will improve the memory, discipline the understanding, refine the feelings, cultivate the taste, form the manners.’
– Fr R J Meyer, ‘Science of the Saints’ (1)

The trials and difficulties of life hit our emotions hard at times. The violent peaks and troughs of our emotions can sometimes leave us feeling like we have just been on a rollercoaster ride.  We can be desperate to find some relief from our unruly passions. There are many ways that we try to ‘refine these feelings’. We may go to a doctor to help us find some way of balancing or controlling our emotions.  Often, we are given drugs that simply numb our sensitivity. For some, this appears to dull their conscience enough to keep them circling around on the rat wheel. For others, these drugs only cause agitation in their bodies, e.g., increased anxiety, with these toxic drugs often numbing them enough so that they can carry out crimes of the most disturbing and violent nature, e.g., homicidal and suicidal acts or tendencies.

At other times, we try to ‘discipline the understanding’ to try to change our emotional reactions.  We may go down the psychotherapeutic or counselling route in our efforts to help us to understand or control our emotions.  Depending on what psychotherapy we go to, the importance of emotions may be overrated, e.g., emotionally focused therapy, or underrated, e.g., rational emotive behaviour therapy. Whatever modern treatment we engage in there is no adequate solution to the problem of these pesky, volatile emotions.  Some short-term relief can be given by professionals who tell people that society and its traditional ‘prejudicies’, e.g., ‘homophobia’, sexism, are the cause of their niggling consciences, thus placating their consciences for a brief period. Yet, most of us realise, even if we only feel it dimly at times, that these modern approaches do not provide us with the solutions we crave, i.e., the peacefulness and happiness the depths of our souls desire. Soon enough, we get sick of being drugged up and numbed and that guilt or anxiety that we taught we could rationalise away soon comes back to haunt us. So, what to do about those emotions which won’t leave us at peace? 

‘Every theory which discredits the true nature of man or denies the need of a Divine Remedy is only intensifying the disease which it attempts to cure.  The psychopathic messes into which many tumble are due either to a want of a knowledge of human nature or to a want of a genuine religion.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) (2)

Before we set out to answer this question, we must ground ourselves in reality. Various therapists and professionals will have different theories on emotion based on their beliefs about reality. In the rationalist world of today, professionals will try to come up with theories about emotion without recourse to the faith and, therefore, without an understanding of the reality of what man is, i.e., a body and soul created by God, destined for either eternal happiness or eternal misery. Without this understanding they fail to see the part that emotions play in this journey. As they do not have a clear understanding themselves of man’s ultimate destiny they only confuse their clients more and more. As Bishop Fulton Sheen notes, they only intensify the disease that they are seeking to cure. So, if the solution to getting a handle on our emotions is not to be found amidst the various branches of modern psychotherapy, where, then, can we receive the education we must desperately need to help us to find peace?

‘[Rationalists] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is not infallible protection against a soft head.’ – C S Lewis (‘The Abolition of Man’) (3)

There is no getting away from emotions. C S Lewis was right in outlining how the right defence against false sentiments is to ‘not to fortify the minds of young people against emotion’ but to ‘inculcate just sentiments’ into starving souls. In giving man both a body and a soul, God gave man a sensitive nature. Thus, we are bound by this sensitive nature. Today, like the times of C S Lewis, people are being swayed and manipulated by emotional propaganda. Yet, the solution remains the same – the inculcation or cultivation of just sentiments rather than the rejection or misunderstanding of sentiment and man’s sensitivity. 

In Defence of Sensitivity

Some of us have a more sensitive nature than others.  This is obvious from experience. Now, whether or not someone is more or less sensitive has no merit, in and of itself. Merit is bestowed based on how we use the gifts that God has given us.  Yet, in this rationalist and materialist age where normality is largely seen as clustering around the average results on some psychometric test developed by rationalist atheists and where any display of strong emotion is often ridiculed or scorned, there is a need to defend man’s innate sensitivity. The reason for this scorning of our sensitive nature appears to be due to the erratic and irrational behaviour we constantly see around us today. It also stems from our own frustrated inability to get a handle on our sensitive nature.  As a result, there is a temptation to mock our sensitive nature or try to rid ourselves of it. However, to control our sensitivity, the solution is not to reject sensitivity or crush it into oblivion. Instead, we must try to properly understand it and the part it plays in helping us toward peace and happiness.

Sensitive Men 

From a philosophical point of view, there appears to be a strong relationship between intellectual ability and sensitivity. For example, speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Doctor of the Church, Jacques Maritain notes that ‘his flesh…was the delicate and sensitive flesh which Aristotle says is peculiar to those endowed with great power of intellect’ and ‘he was so sensitive that the least bodily hurt gave him exquisite pain.’ (4). St. Thomas is an example of a sensitive man who used his sensitivity to give glory and honour to God.  However, the greatest example of how we should view sensitivity is given to us by God Himself. By being clothed in our human flesh when God became man Our Lord gives us insight into how we should view sensitivity. When He took on our sensitive nature, His sensitivity was far greater than that of any man, as Fr Faber, in his excellent book, ‘Bethlehem’ (5) explains: ‘He chose such a temperament of Body as should be able to endure the floods of glory he would pour into it. He chose one whose extreme sensitiveness might almost aid, rather than impede, the delicate operations of his magnificent Soul. He chose one whose beautiful texture caused it to be hereafter such an instrument of suffering as has never existed elsewhere amid all the immense capabilities of created life.’ AND ‘The tenderness of his Sacred Heart was perfect, in the fullest sense of the word. No one had ever been gifted with affections like his. There has never been a sensitiveness which could be thought of alongside of his. In their strength, in their depth, in their fidelity, in their delicacy, never had human affections been so divinely impassioned.’ These facts about one of the greatest saints and, more importantly, God Himself should help us to see that sensitivity, in and of itself, should not be scorned or ridiculed. While none of us are born with a sensitivity as sensitive as Our Lord’s and only some of us approach the sensitivity of St. Thomas, all of us are born with the ability to feel and experience sensations. So, what use should we make of our sensitivity? 

‘When God’s grace, which is always given in answer to prayer, imparts the power to bring home to oneself what Jesus felt, what thoughts traversed His mind, what emotions stirred His soul – in a word, when it is given one to realise in some measure how He humanly reacted to all the circumstances of His life, then one begins to walk with assured step on the road that leads to holiness.’ – Fr Edward Leen (‘In The Likeness of Christ’) (6)

Above, Fr Edward Leen gives us a short description of what effects contemplation on the sensations and emotions Our Lord experienced while in this world should have on us.  Fr Leen continues: ‘Strong in His resolve to tread the path marked out for Him by Divine Providence, He did not use His life, His energies or His talents to minister to His own satisfaction, or to gratify His egoism. Though his sensitive nature was wounded through and through by hostility, unkindness, ingratitude, and want of understanding, He allowed nothing that He suffered from others to modify in the least the perfection of His attitude towards them.  At all times He bore Himself with the same calm, unchanging, unbroken, undeviating fortitude.  He wasted no valuable time in repining or in self-pity; He wasted no energy in rebellion against circumstances; and He did not passively acquiesce to the inevitable with a gesture of indifference or despair. The whole attention of His great Soul was concentrated on the doing of the task that the occasion offered, never once reflecting on what it should mean to Himself in the eyes of men, satisfied that He, in the doing of it, should be approved of in the sight of God.’ (my emphasis). While we will never experience or feel, to the same extent, the pain inflicted on the gentle and sensitive Body of Our Lord, our sensitive nature will inevitably be wounded in this life. Unlike Him, we will, at times, respond to this wounding of our sensitive nature with self-pity and despair.  Due to Original Sin, our sensitive nature will rebel against the dictates of reason and faith. We can then start to begin to curse the feebleness and disobedience of our rebellious body.  We want to be rid of all emotion and sensation and we can often drown ourselves in drink or drugs to try to do so. At other times, we may try to combat life in a stoic way pretending that we are above and unaffected by the sways of emotion. Alternatively, we can contemplate Him Who, while not having any rebellious or disordered emotions, still felt the stirring of emotions within His soul.

The hearts of Jesus and Mary and Joseph were not insensible to any legitimate human feeling or emotion.’ – Fr Leen (‘In The Likeness of Christ’)

Just like Our Lord, the example of the Holy Family teaches us that the Christian life is not about ridding oneself of one’s feelings. The Catholic Faith teaches us to contemplate on and pray about the joys and sorrows of Our Lady and St. Joseph. These devotions give us a better understanding of the Christian way and the Life of Our Lord. While under the care of St. Joseph and Our Lady, Our Lord felt many emotions, Our Lord felt joy, Our Lord cried, Our Lord shivered, Our Lord suffered. When He had grown to Manhood, emotions, felt through His exquisitely sensitive Heart and Body, did not cease. He became intimately involved in the suffering of man and suffered out of love for us. In a world which often promotes the idea of stoic detachment from our own or our neighbour’s suffering Our Lord’s example shows how running away from suffering in this life is not an option. He took on our sensitive nature, not so we could escape from the suffering our sensitive nature inevitably causes us in this life, but so we would know how to use this sensitivity in the right way.

‘[The Church] does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger; the Church only asks that, when a man sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’)

Christ does not expect us to be emotionless or stoic. His life in this world is proof of this. However, He does ask us, through His perfect example, to strive to do the will of God. To do this, He asks us to order our passions accordingly so we do not eat like pigs.  He tells us not to allow our unruly passions to make us beastlike. He also shows us that we should not stoically pretend that we are purely spiritual beings who are immune from the sensations we experience in this life. We are men and we cannot escape this reality. Our Lord solely asks us to be virtuous men who strive manfully to do the will of God. He shows us how to do so. He leads the way in showing us how to use our sensitive nature. This nature God has given us can be an ally in helping us to imitate Him or we can use our sensitivity while working toward our own demise. As the great theologian of the 20th century, Garrigou-Lagrange, notes: ‘Whereas in the souls of saints, of missioners, and of martyrs, a perfectly ordered passion is a power that manifests and serves the love of God and neighbour; in the soul of a criminal, it manifests and serves unbridled self-love.’ (7)

Conclusion:

‘St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.’ – C S Lewis (‘The Abolition of Man’)

Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Ps. 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”: where by “heart” we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by “flesh” the sensitive appetite.’ – St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, FS, Q24, Art. 3, A[3]) (8)

Trying to numb our emotions, following the false stoic way, allowing our passions to have complete free reign over us, or using our sensitive nature to do bad are not the answers.  Our emotions must be directed by us so that eventually they can aid rather than hinder us in our quest for peace and happiness. As St. Augustine and Aristotle note, we must train our emotions to react in the right way. Following on from this, St Thomas notes that it is good and a sign of perfection if our emotions help us do good.  It is a sign that we are beginning to imitate Christ, Who made perfect use of His sensitive nature in carrying out the will of God. It is a sign of entry into the illuminative way as described by Archbishop Goodier: ‘One learns to see things as God sees them, to feel about things as God feels about them, and to judge life accordingly.’ (9) (my emphasis)

Where Emotional Satisfaction is Found

When we go to Holy Communion, we feel something extraordinary, a well-being which runs through the whole body from head to foot. What is this well-being? It is our Lord, who imparts himself to every part of our body, making it thrill with joy. We are compelled to say, like St. John, It is the Lord! Those who feel nothing at all are much to be pitied! When you have had the happiness of receiving the good God, you feel for some time a gladness, a balm in your heart…Pure souls are always like that; and this union is their strength and happiness.’ – St. John Vianney (10) (my emphasis)

While our emotions are rebellious at times and not always under our control, through prayer and penance and ultimately by the grace of God, we can gain much mastery over them (7). It is through the Faith, the Sacraments, and especially the Holy Eucharist, where the good God imparts the most joy to those souls who have devoutly prepared themselves for Him. How sad it is for those who do not know or feel this! By giving us His body and blood as our strength and happiness He gives us strength so our emotions begin to serve us as allies, rather than opponents, in our efforts to do good. This is the right use of emotion. It is the Catholic response. It is the only response that gives true joy to mind, body, and soul and it is the only one that will give us the strength to carry the crosses life brings without trying to numb ourselves to or run from the pain of it all.    

Finally, may God grant us the grace to be able to gain mastery over our rebellious nature and, for the fight we put up, may our sensitive nature be rewarded with eternal balm in our hearts .

God bless

Footnotes and references:

  1. Fr Meyer, R. J. (1906). Science of the Saints. St. Louis: B. Herder Books. Available here: https://archive.org/details/scienceofsaints01meyeuoft/page/n5/mode/2up
  2. Bishop Sheen, F. S. (1949). Peace of Soul. New York: Whittlesey House. Preview available here: https://archive.org/details/peaceofsoul0000shee/mode/2up
  3. Available here: https://archive.org/details/TheAbolitionOfMan_229/mode/2up
  4. Maritain, J. (1947). St Thomas Aquinas. London: The Catholic Book Club.
  5. Fr Faber, F. (published, 1955). Bethlehem. Baltimore: John Murphy Co.
  6. Extended quote: ‘When God’s grace, which is always given in answer to prayer, imparts the power to bring home to oneself what Jesus felt, what thoughts traversed His mind, what emotions stirred His soul – in a word, when it is given one to realise in some measure how He humanly reacted to all the circumstances of His life, then one begins to walk with assured step on the road that leads to holiness.  This study reveals a wonderful similarity and a still more striking dissimilarity between Him and ourselves.  We discover with delight that He was affected by things much in the same way as we ourselves are. He was hurt by misunderstanding; He was wounded by insult; he delighted in candour and innocence; He was revolted by hypocrisy; He was won by straightforwardness and simplicity; He hated lying and irreverence; He was fearless in the vindication of truth; His heart was deeply touched by those who showed faith and confidence in Him, and finally, He gave Himself without reserve to those who yielded Him their loyalty and their affection.  But just as it dawns on us that in many things our experiences are very like what His must have been, and we discover, too, a profound contrast Him and us.  There is a marked difference presented between the perfection of the manner in which He controlled the stirring of His feelings and guided their expression, and the imperfection and weakness exhibited by us at each moment in the direction of our thoughts, our feelings and our activities, i.e. in the direction of our whole internal and external life. We see that His life was perfectly human and still humanly perfect: and we are obliged to confess that all the movements of our being, feelings, emotions, judgements, speech, attitude of mind and body, though bearing the stamp of humanity, are far short of the human perfection discernible in everything pertaining to the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord.  The realisation of this contrast causes in us a pain and a sorrow which partakes more of the nature of love than grief…The study of Him excites in us the desire to become like Him as Man. And then when our life and our acts bear a resemblance to those of Jesus, God comes and pours His Divinity into our souls in abundance, lavishes on them the gifts of His Grace, and gradually breaking down the barriers that exist between creature and Creator, initiates souls into the happiness that accompanies union with the Divinity.  Great happiness results from this union, even in the imperfect mode of it that belongs to the condition of our state of exile on earth.  This is the whole theory of sanctity.’ – Fr Edward Leen (‘In the Likeness of Christ’), p. 197-199.  (This book is an excellent source for coming to know Our Lord’s Humanity). Available to borrow here: https://archive.org/details/inlikenessofchri0000leen/mode/2up
  7. In Volume 1 of the ‘Three Ages of the Interior Life’, Garrigou-Lagrange offers an excellent outline of the means of gaining mastery over our disobedient. This includes spiritual reading, spiritual direction, prayer, mortification and the Sacraments. See here: https://archive.org/details/threeagesofinter0001garr/mode/2up
  8. Summa Theologica available at: http://summa-theologiae.org/question/14303.htm
  9. Archbishop Goodier (1938). An Introduction to the Study of Ascetical and Mystical Theology. London: Burns & Oates. Available to borrow here: https://archive.org/details/introductiontost0000good_s5s0
  10. Convert, A. H (1923). ‘Eucharistic Meditations – Extracts from the Writings and Instructions of St. John Vianney’

Note: The article above is mainly a defence of sensitivity as sensitivity is often misunderstood or abused today. However, an excerpt is posted below from the book, ‘Cords of Adam’ by Fr Thomas J. Gerard (published: 1908), so it is understood that sentiment and sensitivity to emotion can serve as an aid or a hindrance to true devotion and happiness. Fr Gerard makes many similar points to the ones made above about the emotional nature of man but it also outlines the dangers associated with sentiment which are worth being aware. We may taste the sweetness of the Lord (Psalms 33:9) at times, especially after Holy Communion as St. John Vianney notes, but lest this serve as a means to ensnare us in spiritual pride the following piece is worth taking onboard :

 ‘The abuse of emotion in religion has been stigmatised as sentimentalism. But the abuse of this abuse may easily lead to another equally great mistake, namely, that of undervaluing the use of emotion in religion. Man is a rational animal and much more. He is also a volitional and emotional animal. Since human nature then is as it is, the emotions must ever have their proper place assigned to them in the life of devotion.’ – p. 60

‘There is a middle way between a cold passionless religion and a religion which is all sighs and ejaculations. The correct measure of sentiment is the measure in which it leads to right action and conduct.

            There is a tendency in this northern climate of ours to undervalue the use of emotion in religion. I question very much whether that prayer in the Missal is often used, the prayer for the gift of tears. Simpering in an Englishman or an American would probably be accounted to him as softness if not something worse. Still there is that in most men which in an Italian is represented by tears. There is some tremulant emotion, however slight, a kind of wincing at the thought of sin committed, a feeling of horror at the thought of having offended God. Well, this feeling, wincing or tremulant emotion is valuable and to be encouraged just in so far as it tends to real purpose of amendment; and in so far as it does not it must be reckoned as worthless.  The absence of feeling in those who are living the spiritual life seriously has been considered a recognised phase in the process of spiritual development. It is a trial intended to test the firmness of the will. The will that can go in spite of the absence of all sensible devotion may content itself that it is fairly well flourishing in spiritual growth. Indeed so valuable is this test that it is spoken of as a ‘dark night,’ and at the same time a ‘night more lovely than the dawn,’ a light guiding me ‘more surely than the noon-day sun.’ This absence, however, derives its value from the contrast to the presence. The presence of emotion, therefore, is to be valued as providing a breathing time against the coming absence. The absence is to be valued as providing a test of the efficacious firmness of the will. There may be souls who are habitually dry. But they are not normal cases. The constant absence of all emotion may be a sign of carelessness and want of interest in the spiritual life, although not necessarily so. It is certainly, however, a sign that the conscience needs examination.  If the result of examination shows that the ordinary means are being taken to promote interest in spiritual matters, then the dryness may be considered as an exercise in will-power; but if it shows that these means are not being taken, then the dryness must be considered as a sign of danger.

            Opposed to the occasional and constant absence of emotion is the constant presence of it. This equally affords a reason for self-examination. The value of the constant presence is more easily weighed than the value of the constant absence. It has an art and a music and a literature all to itself. These are almost entirely devoid of any solid intellectual characteristic. They affect rather loud clashing colour, sensual emasculated tone and senseless incoherent ejaculation. The life of Our Lord is read greedily in the visions of the saints, whilst that in the gospels is found dry and uninteresting. Not that he descriptions of St. Gertrude and Blessed Margaret Mary and Sister Catherine Emmerich do not give us wondrous insights into the spirit of the life of Christ, but that the soul which interests itself in nothing but sensible devotion misses the whole of that spirit and contents itself with the letter through which the spirit is meant to be conveyed. The altogether emotional devotion has its own peculiar sins too. These are the secret sins of spiritual pride and self-righteousness and the one predominant open sin of talking of the faults of others.

            The remedy for all these vagaries is a return to the standard of the gospel. Christ will be served as He wishes and not as we wish. He has given us affections and emotions to help us in that service. His one business on earth is to do the will of His Heavenly Father, to save souls by the undoing and by the hindrance of sin. In so far then as emotion and affection draw us nearer to Him and keep us away from sin, they are being rightly used. In so far as they are made an end or a pleasure in themselves they are being used wrongly. To love Christ because of his obvious kindness and gentleness is good in its way, but not precisely what He wants. What He desires is practical sympathy which will do and live for His cause, the salvation of souls.  The women who met Him on His way to crucifixion had a gift of tears, but not exactly the gift of tears which He preferred. ‘Weep not for Me,’ He said, ‘but for yourselves and your children: not for My sufferings, but for your sins which cause them.’

            So also was it when Our Lady found Him in the temple. The mother and father had sought the Child sorrowing. Their affection, however, although of the purest and best, needed to be directed to a higher service than their natural satisfaction. ‘Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ How much more direction than does affection need which in comparison is so gross and carnal? The true test of right cultivation is the fruit which the emotions bring forth. ‘Not every one that saith to Me Lord, Lord, shall enter in to the kingdom of heaven; but he that doth the will of My Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ – p. 62-5

Am I Too Sensitive?

This is a question that many people ask themselves.  It is a subject that comes up with many individuals in counselling sessions.  I have written elsewhere about ‘validating emotions’ but here I would like to talk more about a related topic, ‘sensitivity’.  This is, excuse the pun, a sensitive and slightly nuanced topic so one must get back to fundamentals about human nature to understand it.  A great place to start for understanding these fundamentals is Aristotle who some have referred to as ‘the father of psychology’ (1). 

The Merits of Sensitivity:

Aristotle noted that those with a high degree of sensitivity also tended to be highly intelligent.  To perceive, respond to and organise sensory information in the world in a quick and logical fashion requires heightened senses. In this life, we are reliant on our body, i.e. our sense organs, to gather sensory information from the world, while the intellect, i.e. a faculty of the soul, organises and makes sense of this information.  Some people’s bodies are more responsive to information coming in through the senses.  These people are more likely to feel bodily pain more intensely and be more susceptible to information overload. It is more likely that those who are highly sensitive will end up going to see a mental health professional. Now, while some of us may bemoan our sensitivity, being highly sensitive is not necessarily a bad thing. It is linked to higher intelligence and sensitivity also has some higher endorsements than this. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, had the most sensitive skin, as emphasised by many Doctors of the Church, e.g. St Bonaventure, and due to this, He was subject to the most painful and excruciating physical pain in His passion.  Our Lord’s example shows us that having a high degree of sensitivity is not a bad thing. Many of the saints also had a high degree of sensitivity.  This includes the likes of St Francis Xavier, who has been described as ‘vibrantly sensitive’ (2) and St Terese of Lisieux, who has been described as ‘super sensitive’ (3). As I have argued elsewhere, sanctity and insanity are incompatible, and the model of the saint should be our model for normal.  Many saints were able to combine a high degree of sensitivity with a high degree of sanctity.  The temptation today, when we feel overwhelmed by life, is to try to numb the sensitivity of our body.  As Carol Robinson points out in ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’ (4), this can be particularly tempting for Catholics who know and love the Faith and see how much our societies are rejecting Christ and His teachings: ‘There is that wide gap between religion and daily life…which is creating a terrific tension in our lives.  This is probably the root reason why lay Catholics have mental breakdowns. The more penetrating and sensitive they are the more sharply they feel the contrast between the nobility of their religion and the sordidness of the economic aspirations; between the intensity of their spiritual life and the dullness of mechanical work and play.’  The toxicity of the world can get in at individuals, especially sensitive ones.  There are many substances which can take some of the sensitivity away, e.g. alcohol, drugs, psychiatric drugs/medications.  These drugs can have a numbing effect on our senses.  These can be useful at times to ‘take the edge off’ and help us to relax or unwind but these substances are not long-term solutions to our sensitivity.  So, what is the solution?  Well, before we look for solutions, we must make sure we have an accurate diagnosis.  This is where the great Angelic Doctor of the Church and most sensitive of men, St Thomas Aquinas, whose ‘flesh, according to William of Tocco, was the delicate and sensitive flesh which Aristotle says is peculiar to those endowed with great power of intellect’ (5), comes in. 

Understanding the Passions:

In St Thomas’ treatise on the passions in his masterpiece, ‘Summa Theologica’ (6), he provides the fundamental foundation for understanding and evaluating whether passions, i.e. the sensitive appetites, are right or wrong in their expression.  In this treatise, St Thomas challenges the philosophy of both Cicero and the Stoics who saw the passions as ‘diseases’ and ‘disturbances’.  St Thomas notes that their philosophy is built on a misunderstanding of passions. (Note: St Thomas says that ‘passions are not called “diseases” or “disturbances” of the soul, save when they are not controlled by reason.’  For further insight into St Thomas’ refutation of Cicero’s and the Stoic’s interpretation of the passions, see: http://summa-theologiae.org/question/14302.htm). While St Thomas acknowledges the dangers of the passions he also notes how, in and of themselves, the passions are neither good nor bad.  He acknowledges how passions are bad if they are not in accordance with reason and good if they are in accordance with reason.  For example, hating God, who is the supreme good, is against reason, while loving God is in accordance with reason.  St Thomas acknowledges that passions can lead one astray.  Reason must be their master. ‘The passions of the soul, in so far as they are contrary to the order of reason, incline us to sin: but in so far as they are controlled by reason, they pertain to virtue.’  He goes on further to show how passions that are controlled by reason and rejoice in the things of God are a sign of moral perfection. ‘Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Ps. 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”: where by “heart” we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by “flesh” the sensitive appetite.’ 

Saintly Examples:

Many examples of this perfection of moral good are apparent in the lives of the saints and holy men.  For example, St John Vianney sorrowed at offences against God: ‘He was a saint, that is to say, he loved God with all his soul, and they scarcely told him of anything except offences committed against God.  This lacerated his heart, and in his most intimate conversations he could not repress the grief it caused him. ‘Ah! It is here one must come, to know all the harm that sin of Adam has done to us’, he repeated time after time. ‘My God!’, he exclaimed one day, ‘how weary I am of sinners! When shall I be with saints!’ And another day: ‘The good God is as much sinned against, that one is almost tempted to ask for the end of the world.  If there were not, here and there, some beautiful souls to repose the heart, and solace the eyes for all the evil that one sees and hears, we could not tolerate each other in this life.’ While sorrowing at the offences against God, he rejoiced in the honour given to Him: ‘When he preached from the altar, his eyes never rested on the Tabernacle without his being seized with a kind of breathless transport. He never spoke of the Mass without being moved to tears ‘Oh, my friend,’ he said one day to a seminarist, who was speaking of the grandeur of the priesthood, ‘when I carry the Blessed Sacrament to the right, It remains there, I carry it to the left and it remains there also. One will never understand the happiness there is in saying Mass until one is in heaven.’ (7). 

Another remarkable saint, St Dominic, showed how his heart and his flesh grieved at offences against God: ‘Day and night he was in the church, praying as it were without ceasing, God gave him the grace to weep for sinners and for the afflicted; he bore their sorrows in an inner sanctuary of holy compassion, and so this loving compassion which pressed on his heart flowed out and escaped in tears. It was his custom to spend the night in prayer, and to speak to God with his door shut. But often there might be heard the voice of his groans and sighs, which burst from him against his will.’ (8).

The following piece on the saintly Cardinal Merry del Val, Secretary of State to St Pius X, shows how sensitive a truly pious and God loving soul reacts to offences against God:  ‘Free at last from diplomacy and politics, in his solitary and silent home of Santa Marta, he could give full freedom to the longings of his holy soul: to that delicate and sensitive piety which made him suffer when he saw God’s law broken.  To hear any profane language on the street used to horrify him, and even upset him physically. Once, in a country town, he saw some porters loading sacks of grain on to a waggon; one of these was torn, so that the contents ran out on to the road; the porter broke out into the vilest language, even in the presence of some boys.  The Cardinal was affected for the whole day, and in the evening, in addition to his usual visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he made another and a long one.  Going out for a walk one day, he met a carriage-driver in the piazza, who was uttering blasphemous words against Our Lady. He went up to him, reproved him, and, taking his number, said that he would report him, all the more that the offence was punishable by law; he was only prevented from so doing by the man’s entreaties and promises.  The same delicate sensitiveness made him feel for dumb animals, which he could not bear to see ill-treated, and more than once he intervened to hinder such treatment, or cause it to cease.’ (9). These passages illustrate how great men in the Church were highly sensitive. They also show how their hearts and flesh rejoiced in the goodness of Our Lord and sorrowed at offences against Him and His creatures.

An Objective Standard:

So, where does this leave us in relation to evaluating whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’?  First, we must recognise that to judge whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’ we require examples and an objective and rational standard to base this off.  Where do we find these examples? There is no better place to look to than the examples of Our Lord and His saints.  These provide Divine and holy examples of sensitive reactions.  They show us how to direct and manage our sensitivity. Where do we find an objective and rational standard to evaluate sensitivity? For those who wish to have a sound scientific footing for understanding sensitivity and the passions, there is no better place to look than St Thomas Aquinas.

The Solution to this Sensitive Topic:

If mental health professionals are to help people cope with life, they must understand what a human being is and what an ordered life looks like.  To define ‘disorder’ one must know what order looks like first.  Our Lord provides the Divine example of a perfectly ordered life and His saints provide holy examples for us to intimate.  St Thomas provides the philosophical foundation for the understanding of psychological order.  Since Protestants detached themselves from the infallible guide that is the Catholic Church in the 16th century and since scholastic philosophy, e.g. St Thomas, has been ridiculed and rejected by many in the 19th and 20th century, the mental health ‘experts’, i.e. psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have come up with their own subjective understandings of what a disorder is.  In our modern times, there is much more understanding of the neurology of the brain and increased awareness of the biological processes operating throughout our body that affect our senses than there was during the times of St Thomas. For example, we know more about the essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the senses.  However, more importantly at a deeper philosophical and theological level, there is less understanding about what one should do with one’s sensitivity.  There is even less understanding about one should be sensitive to.  We live in a time where we can fix many sensory issues or problems that we may have, e.g. glasses for eyes, hearing aids for ears, yet, many of us have no idea of how we should use the senses God has given us. Today’s apparent ‘experts’ on these matters seem even less enlightened than the average citizen with many encouraging or condoning the use of the senses in activities that are offensive to God, e.g. abortion, contraception, fornication, homosexual behaviour, etc.  If placating guilty consciences does not work, oftentimes, the reaction of mental health professionals and apparent mental health ‘experts’ to particularly sensitive individuals is to sedate and numb them with drugs. 

It is no wonder that sensitive individuals, who fail to find answers from modern mental health professionals/experts, struggle to understand and cope with their sensitivity and engage in various means to numb their sensitivity, e.g. drink, drugs, or try get a hold of them of their sensitivity, e.g. New Age practices, yoga, mindfulness, or try to satisfy their sensitive appetites, e.g. fornication, food, sentimental religious practices such as the Charismatic/Pentecostal movements.  None of these will provide the answers people are looking for.  The solution to one’s sensitivity is not a bemoaning of one’s sensitivity as you try to numb it or a glorification of one’s sensitivity as you try to feed its insatiable appetite.  Nor is it a flight to New Age gurus who pose as peaceful enlightened beings. It is a return to what St Thomas and the Catholic Faith teaches us. It is a mastering of one’s sensitivity and a habitual training of one’s passions so that they rejoice in that which is virtuous and true and sorrow over vice and toxic falsehoods. There are natural methods, e.g. fasting, exercise, penances, that help one to master one’s sensitivity.  All these efforts must be directed by love of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty Himself. Ultimately, grace, through the Holy Ghost, is the most powerful force for ordering oneself and one’s sensitivity in the right manner so that, through this ordering, one can experience the spirit of liberty that St Paul speaks about (‘Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ – 2 Corinthians 3:17) and that Our Lord promises to those who follow Him (‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ – John 8:32).

So for 2020, may God bless you in your efforts to find peace, freedom and happiness. May He take a hold of your heart as well as your flesh and may your heart and flesh both rejoice in Him.  

References:

  1. For example, see: https://intelltheory.com/aristotle.shtml
  2. ‘C. C. Martindale, S. J. (1934), ‘What are Saints?’ – Sheed & Ward: London
  3. Amabel Du Coeur de Jesus (1953) ‘To Love and To Suffer’. Newman Press
  4. Carol Robinson (reprinted – 1992). ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’, Angelus Press: Kansas.
  5. Maritain, J. (1947) ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, The Catholic Book Club: London.
  6. See: http://summa-theologiae.org/T13.htm
  7. Vianney, Joseph (1906) ‘The Blessed John Vianney’
  8. Drane, A. T. (1891) ‘Life of St Dominic’
  9. Monsignor Dalpiaz, V. (1937). ‘Cardinal Merry del Val’ Burns, Oates & Washbourne: London

Validating Emotions

Emotions, and especially passions, are the source of the greatest good, and of the greatest evil.’
– Harvard Professor of Philosophy, Charles A. Dubray

In the psychotherapeutic field one often hears about the need for feelings or emotions to be ‘validated’. This type of talk has come particularly from those who are on the left side of the political spectrum and particularly mental health professionals who lean towards left wing politics, e.g. websites – Psych Central, Psychology Today.  In reaction to this type of talk, some of those on the right side of the political spectrum, have dismissed feelings as irrelevant in informing serious political discussions, e.g. Ben Shapiro, Stefan Molyneux.  This blog examines what is understood by ‘validating’ feelings, looks at how emotions are treated in modern psychological services and concludes by outlining what it means to truly validate emotions. 

Take a look around you. If you can slow down your own mind enough, sit and look at people as they go about their everyday business.  Many people are extremely agitated and anxious.  There is a restlessness that pervades our society.  Many people are feeling overwhelmed by the psychological pressure and emotional turmoil they are under. Mental health services can not keep up with the public demand, pharmaceutical companies have never been richer, and psychotherapists have never been busier.  Amongst all this anxious activity, one hears the cry that feelings must be ‘validated’.  It seems to come from those who are truly entangled in their emotions and want to be heard. What is certainly valid is that people are in distress and need help.  How people, especially those professionals in mental health services, decide to deal with and interpret or ‘validate’ emotional expressions is vitally important in helping people and society regain emotional stability.        

Emotions should be acknowledged (See footnote). Acknowledging feelings is essential in helping and communicating with people.  Feelings could be indicating an objective reality that the person is experiencing or has experienced, i.e. feeling more agitated after taking prescribed drugs, feeling guilty after aborting my unborn child, feeling sorrow after lying to my friend. What feels subjectively bad and what is objectively bad can overlap due to the nagging of our conscience which can trigger an emotional response in us.  Due to this, it is worth acknowledging feelings as they can, sometimes, be the first signs of something going wrong.  However, feelings are far from infallible guides. 

Feelings are often disconnected from the truth, especially if the experiences involve the passions as passions blind us to the truth, e.g. I feel good after casual sex (fornication) and so does the person I had sex with so what’s the harm in it?, I get a thrill out of petty theft so what’s the harm?, I felt happy on the day I was ‘married’ to my same-sex ‘partner’ so what’s the harm?. Our conscience can be misinformed and/or blinded by our passions/feelings.  Feelings are often wrong and can lead the conscience, which is informed by the intellect, astray. Therefore, feelings and one’s conscience need to be measured in the light of reason and evidence to see if there is any objective truth in the emotions experienced.  

Reason and evidence can guide people to the truth.  It is particularly important for mental health professionals to have a firm understanding of what is objectively true/good as they are the ones working with people who have lost their way. If the client/patient has no idea of what is objectively good/true, then it is even more incumbent on the professional to have a good idea of this.  Professionals also need to be humble enough to acknowledge that the personal experiences and emotions of clients or patients are worth hearing and exploring, especially in areas where there is no clear understanding of what is objectively true/good, e.g. a certain drug may not have caused agitation in many patients but there is always the possibility that it could have in the patient in front of you.  A correct formation and education in the truth about human beings and a humble attitude are essential traits in a mental health professional, particularly in any professionals that hold the power to force treatment on someone or take away their basic human rights.  The more responsibility one has, the humbler he should be. ‘For he that is the lesser among you all, he is the greater. (Luke 9:48).

While it is not possible to classify every emotional reaction as good or bad, a good and clear education about the nature of human beings and an accurate understanding of human psychology helps the professional to have a clearer understanding of emotional expression in humans. This formation also helps to give a clearer idea of when people’s feelings are disconnected from reality.  Being humble helps the professional to treat the person in front of them as an individual who has unique experiences and insights.  The basic premises of good psychological health care are summed up in: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment.  And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Mark 12: 30-31) (Or ‘All things therefore whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them.’ (Matthew 7:12)).  As mental health services become detached from these premises, it only leads to a rigid and totalitarian approach, which often is initially packaged as ‘care’ and ‘compassion’.  There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing today in mental health services.  Once society has detached itself from the divine guidance above, decreased freedom is the inevitable outcome. 

Increasingly, in the liberal/secular/Marxist paradigm that dominates mental health services, some emotional responses are seen as ‘right’ and others are seen as ‘wrong’. If you are annoyed or become irritated that the psychiatrist is not willing to validate the feelings you have that the drugs you are on are damaging your brain (which many do) and you express this to him you can be labelled as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘irrational’. If you don’t believe that you need the drugs you might be seen as ‘lacking insight’ and if you keep up the opposition, you might get diagnosed with another disorder such as ‘oppositional deviant disorder’ (While working on psychiatric wards I have seen this happen).  If you are feeling guilty about having had an abortion or about engaging in homosexual activity, the kind, warm hearted therapist will ease your worried conscience. Most likely, they will ‘validate’ your feelings with good eye contract and basic counselling phrases like ‘that’s tough’ and ‘poor you’ while telling you that you have done nothing wrong and that it is only society and the Christian culture you were brought up in that is making you feel guilty (This is what the Psychological Society of Ireland are currently doing). 

Authorities such as psychiatrists, can physically restrain you and force treatment on you if you disagree with their pseudoscience.  Psychologists and psychotherapists can encourage you to become a slave to sin and the devil by comforting you and helping you find ways of rethinking or reimagining your ‘negative’ emotions.  Your emotions and concerns may be acknowledged, i.e. the professionals may acknowledge your emotions by acknowledging that they are what you are experiencing, but they will eventually dismiss these emotions as not being in accord with their interpretation of reality.  In many cases, a softly, softly approach may be taken to convince you that their interpretation of reality is correct. If that doesn’t work some mental health professionals (who are often detached from reality themselves but have lots of letters after their name after many years of study) can bring the full force of the law down on you to force you to see the world their way.  If a professional or others are going to tell you that your feelings are not in line with reality or that ‘feelings don’t matter’ or ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ (as some notable right wing political commentators suggest and are applauded for) they must do this with humility and they must be sure that they know the facts and have a good knowledge of the truth.  It is easy, due to pride, to force our false interpretations of reality on others and by doing so, we may be missing genuine concerns that the individual expresses which indicate that there is something seriously amiss. 

If today’s mental health professionals knew the truth of human psychology, they could really help people who have nagging consciences. They could then direct them appropriately, e.g. confession, catechism classes. Instead they mostly exacerbate the problem as Willibald Demal (‘Pastoral Psychology in Practice’) explains, If ever-recurring impulses or emotions which either cannot be defended before the tribunal of our conscience or appear to be indefensible do not find a natural outlet and are forcibly repressed from consciousness, they simply continue to grow in the subconscious and cause the gravest disturbances.’ The liberal/secular/Marxist mental health professionals are coming up with more and more convoluted ways of suppressing one’s conscience and the feelings that arise from it, while the Church, which many of these professionals criticize for suppressing people, has always acknowledged that emotional expression is part of what makes us human as Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) points out: ‘[The Church] does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger; the Church only asks that, when a man sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig.  Our Lord did not repress the emotional zeal of Paul; He merely redirected it from hate to love. Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene; He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue.’  This is the healthier and nobler way of handling emotions, i.e. by directing them towards Love itself.

So, the ultimate judge of whether an emotional response is reasonable is whether it is line with the truth/reality.  Now, as there are so many variables that inform emotional expression, e.g. life experiences, temperament, character, education, understanding, what is and is not an appropriate emotional expression is difficult to decipher.  There are no fixed standards for emotional expression. To try to create fixed standards, could impede the cultivation of the personality of the most remarkable of individuals.  For example, if we were to apply today’s standards of ‘normal’ emotional expression to the lives of the saints many of them, such as St Francis of Assisi or St Martin de Porres, would likely have been diagnosed with mania, locked up on a psychiatric ward and drugged up for being too exuberant in their love of God, their neighbour and the animals of this world.  Other saints, such as St Dominic and St John Vianney, who were known to weep at the thoughts of all the offences committed against God, would likely to be diagnosed as ‘depressive’ and put on drugs that would blunt their emotions, such as SSRI’s, today.  While under the control of reason and guided by the light of faith, the emotional expression of these saints was an essential part of their being. 

Unlike, the Catholic Faith, which celebrates the cultivation of one’s unique personality and which has given many sainthoods to those who may be considered ‘mad’ or, at least, eccentric, by today’s standards, psychiatry and modern psychology is only coming up with more diagnoses and formulas to destroy individuality and numb emotions in the name of ‘scientific progress’.  In their efforts to control the emotional expression of the masses, psychologists and psychiatrists, informed by Marxist or liberal ideologies, have helped to tear down walls that gave people a chance to express themselves and their emotions in a safe and healthy way.  As Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) notes,Life may be likened to children playing…the playground established by the Church might be a rock in the sea, surrounded by great walls; inside of those walls the children may dance and sing and play as they please. Liberals would ask the Church to tear down the walls on the grounds that they are a restraining influence; but if this were done, you would find all the children huddled in the centre of the island, afraid to play, afraid to sing, afraid to dance, afraid of falling into the sea.  This is exactly what it is happening today as the walls come crumbling down. 

The wisdom written on these desecrated walls has also been cast aside in our current era but fragments of great advice can be found such as those offered by Professor Dubray in the early part of the 20th century.  He speaks about how emotions need to be cultivated, controlled and ‘made an auxiliary in striving for the noblest aims’. They should be evaluated by and brought under the control of reason. Reason should be the master of feelings as feelings are blind in themselves and are not universal but vary across individuals. 

Until we get back to a stage where we truly understand what exactly a human being is and what human beings were created for, we will struggle further in our attempts to understand and evaluate the appropriateness of human responses. There will continue to be constant endless bickering between those who encourage ‘validating’ of feelings and try to create their own reality based on these feelings and those who dismiss feelings rashly and don’t believe that feelings are relevant in any serious discussion about life.  Let us understand ourselves and let God use us and our human frailty, which includes emotional expression, in the way He sees fit.

As Prof Dubray (‘Introductory Philosophy’) makes clear, ‘To try to eliminate all feelings from morality, and look upon them as obstacles to be removed, as the Stoics and Kant did; to look upon duty as being by its very nature a burden to be carried painfully and by dint of effort; to place the ideal of man in a state of perfect calmness and rest undisturbed by any feeling or emotion, is to misunderstand human nature, to overlook human psychology, and to give a rule unfit to guide men, since it fails to take men as they are essentially.’ Let us understand human psychology and emotions and use the energy they can inspire in us for the greatest good. If there is any real ‘validating’ to be done, let us first validate the true meaning of our existence.  Then let us validate the true dignity of each human soul by acknowledging the sadness that can come in this valley of tears and let us try to help each other to carry our crosses as we strive to find or stay on the straight and narrow path.  In this way, we do not give emotions the worship nor the disdain that the world thinks they deserve but, rather, we place them within the divine order to which they belong. 

This is truely validating emotions.     

Footnote:

Acknowledging emotions is not meant, in the sense, that strong emotions should be associated with objective reality if they contradict plain facts or conclusive evidence. Neither is it meant, in the sense, that talking about feelings is always useful as some people like to suggest.  For example, if someone rejects basic facts, e.g.‘2+2=4’ or first principles, e.g. ‘something cannot be at once one way and the contradictory way’, then Prof Dubray suggest that ‘nothing is left but to stop thinking altogether or go an asylum’.  You can still care for the person who is thinking like this but engaging in any conversation rather than pointing out the absurdity of their feelings may only validate the falsehoods they are expressing. Acknowledging emotions is meant, in the sense, that emotions indicate a psychological reality for people. In most cases, outside of the above examples, one can safely acknowledge them, i.e. acknowledge that certain feelings are real for the person you are speaking to, without encouraging the belief in obvious falsehoods.  For the above examples, where somebody doesn’t have an obvious biological/cognitive impairment that is disrupting their reasoning, the Irish expression, ‘Ah, would you cop on’ is probably useful in these cases as it is not too harsh but gets to the point quickly.  Gentle and firm encouragement is sometimes needed to help people see the absurdity of their feelings or beliefs before they get in a lot of trouble trying to live a life formed on false and unstable foundations.