In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.
From my Touchstone article ‘More Than Schooling‘:
“Our loves orient us to visions of human flourishing that pull us towards a certain telos far more effectively than someone trying to push us there. …the real competitor of classical education is not the public schools, as so often thought, but the panoply of what [James K.A. Smith] calls “secular liturgies,” which also aim to capture our imaginations on an instinctive level. For him, Christian education is important, not because the public schools are so bad, but because shopping malls, commercials, and clothing advertisements are so good, or appear so to the impoverished soul.
The idols of the materialistic world usually reach our hearts only because they have first captured our imaginations. Now, capturing the imagination is also what a liberal arts education should fundamentally be about. It’s not simply about learning things, but about being nourished, and coming to love what is good, true, and beautiful at a gut level.”
Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, the doctrine of resurrection functioned as a kind of footnote in my thinking while my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.
My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective which deemphasized the importance of the physical world. Some of my earliest writings had argued that during the Old Testament the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world but in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (i.e., non-physical). What happened in the material world is unimportant to God; the best we can hope to do is prepare for the next. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.
From my book Saints and Scoundrels
, page 14:
“…the greatest defense against evil is to enjoy the good…the strongest bulwark against unbelief is our capacity to love what is beautiful…the surest support against the lies of the devil is to be attracted to what is true.”
From Saints and Scoundrels, page 227:
“The task of Christian parents is not merely to pass on the truth to their chidlren, but also to show the next generation that the truth is lovely. Many Christian young people have willingly walked away from a faith they once believed to be true because they were enticed by the illusory attractiveness of idols. But few will abandon a faith they believe to be both true and beautiful.”
To Love is to be Vulnerable
Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their parents would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making them upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of what she really felt. She found it hard to be transparent and vulnerable.
When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,
- conceptual and contextual thinking;
- the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
- the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
- the ability to put knowledge into schemas.
In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.
“Why do I need to remember this when I can always look it up?” This is a common question among the younger generation, who often struggle to see the value of education in a world where all knowledge is quickly becoming digitized. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer partly answers this question by exploring the connection between memory and understanding.
“…even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
…memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.”
Last week I got a biography from the library about the relationship between Viktor and Elly Frankl, titled When Life Calls Out to us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. In the book’s introduction, the author has a discussion of Frankl’s opposition to the Human Potential Movement that became a dominant feature of American discourse in the second half of the twentieth-century.
“Frankl was a major voice in humanistic psychology–a loosely connected array of approaches that arose in the United States in the mid twentieth century. It counteracted the dehumanizing tendencies of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which predominated at the time, and offered a more optimistic and less deterministic view of human nature. Frankl anticipated the distortion of humanistic psychology into the American ‘human potentials movement..’ That movement asserted that we all have a right to personal happiness as well as virtually limitless potential to attain it…. At the extremes, the human potentials movement has left many in the clutches of an individualism that plays a role in the loss of community, in the breakdown of marriages, and in boredom, promiscuity, loneliness, greed, addictions, abuse, and other forms of violence….
To Frankl, the human potentials movement and its promise of boundless individual growth and happiness were a pip dream from the start. To him it was a wishful fancy to gloss over the guilt and pain and death that go with being human, to sidestep our personal responsibility to others and the world, to overlook the capacity of people to suffer courageously–even to bring good out of unavoidable adversity–and to ignore the fact that all human beings are capable of extraordinary evil as well as extraordinary good….
When it comes to suffering, self-fulfillment teaching tends to evade, deny, or trivialize it as something abnormal and fleeting. Frankl not only underscored suffering as a normal part of human experience, but he asserted the real possibility of finding meaning in it when it cannot be avoided. In the Holocaust he himself faced incomprehensible evil and loss–after that he was never able to offer a quick fix, to suggest seven easy steps to perpetual joy, or to spell out the secrets for health-wealth-happiness. Rather, he summoned the human spirit to its triumph of love, in service, and even in suffering.”
This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.
One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.
Earlier this month, Carolyn Gregoire wrote a powerful article on intuition for the Huffington Post. Her article, ‘10 Things Highly Intuitive People Do Differently‘, showed that being able to have an accurate intuition is a skill we develop with practice, by engaging in right practices such as taking time to be creative, to be quiet, to mindfulness let go of negative emotions, and so forth. It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink where he showed that there is a complex context of antecedents that precede a person’s ability to make accurate split second reactions based on intuition. One of the things I most appreciated about Gregoire’s piece was her emphasis that constant busyness and connection to digital connectivity can starve the ability to be intuitive. That is something I’ve found, as it is the times when I turn off all my devices to just be quiet that I achieve my best insights and connect best with the intuition God has given me. From Gregoire’s piece:
“Few things stifle intuition as easily as constant busyness, multitasking, connectivity to digital devices and stress and burnout. According to Huffington, we always have an intuitive sense about the people in our lives — on a deep level, we know the good ones from the ‘flatterers and dissemblers’ — but we’re not always awake enough to our intuition to acknowledge the difference to ourselves. The problem is that we’re simply too busy.”