In many ways we live in an age of “feeling.” If we feel something—anything—we show it, talk about it, dissect it, and take it to our shrinks. This is, apparently, in reaction to earlier more “stoic” ages where feelings were stuffed down, ignored, and thrown out with yesterday’s milk bottles.
I am definitely in favor of being aware of one’s feelings—to know where they are coming from, why we are having them, and what we can do about them is, I believe, part of being a mature human being—but I believe there is a danger in our constantly feeling age. The focus seems to be on pursuing and fulfilling the feeling, whatever it is, rather than putting it in its proper place.
Essentially, much of what I see around me seems to boil down to “If you feel it, act on it.” If you are attracted to her, go after her. If you are angry, vent it. If you are depressed, wallow and revel in it. The possibility of our own ability to reason and to choose our actions, seems to be ignored when any sort of feeling enters the equation.
It is true that our initial reaction to something that spontaneously springs upon us from outside stimulus cannot be controlled. We can feel an initial few seconds of fear, or joy, or despair, or lust, but after that brief uprising, the choice to revisit that feeling becomes ours.
This can be quite shame-making in hour two of red-hot anger over an argument, or day five of a delightful revel in despair. I can’t help those initial seconds, but the rest of those hours and days: those I have chosen. Those, I have lived through because I wanted to.
In a very real way, sometimes it is easier to stay angry rather than choose forgiveness. Sometimes it is easier to sink into despair, rather than choose hope. Sometimes it is easier to succumb to fear, rather than rise to courage. Perhaps it might seem more fun to pursue lust, rather than faithfulness and chastity.
The fact that all this can be hard doesn’t really matter though, because what counts is that we can choose. We are not victims of what we feel.
It’s not that our feelings lie to us: in a sense they tell us about our relationship to someone or something at one moment in time. But just because we feel something, doesn’t mean we have to follow through with it. It doesn’t mean we should follow through with it.
Now, sitting here on the couch, wondering where to go with this, I am stuck. Because even though what I say is true, it doesn’t make it easy. And I have no quick answers or exciting tricks. “It’s so hard…” I whine in my head. A very universal problem: knowing what is right and actually applying the will to accomplish it.
But then,“It’s actually very simple,” says my boyfriend, reading over my shoulder. “Compare this to your body. If you are outside and you are cold, you don’t just go ‘I’m cold and there is nothing I can do about it. So I’m going to stay cold.’ No. That’s stupid. You put on a jacket, or you go inside.”
This is true. When we feel something in our body—cold on our skin, or hunger in our belly, or pain at the tip of our fingers—we fairly easily supplant the sensation once we realize that it is unfavorable or not benefitting us. We put on a sweater, or we eat some food, or we stop playing with the candle flame.
Perhaps, then, we need to think of our feelings in a more concrete way, as something to be tackled and dealt with in the same practical way we handle our bodies. We don’t ignore our bodily sensations—we pay attention to them and deal with them. We change what pains us and we fix things that are not working properly.
Maybe if, “DAMN it, I actually have to say SORRY?!” was treated like, “Gosh, I’m hungry and have to make a sandwich,” as a simple action that has to be done so that you are actually taking care of yourself…maybe then we wouldn’t find this all so difficult.
Is this possible? I’m not sure. Does this even make sense? It’s debatable.
But what I do know is this: Once you fully internalize the fact that you are in control of the feelings you have in reaction to your life and whatever it throws at you, it is impossible to be okay pursuing anything less than things like joy and peace and hope and love.
We really can choose all of those things, regardless of where we are or what happens to us. And to actively choose anything less, to choose what is essentially unhappiness, is in direct contradiction to what we have been created for.