Rightly Ordered Emotion

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.

Aristotle

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.

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The Virtue of Vulnerability in an Age of Sentimentalism, Stoicism and Cynicism

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.

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Viktor Frankl vs. the Human Potentials Movement

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.”

Further Reading

Positive Self-Talk and Anxiety

On a blustery Sunday afternoon in December 2017, I headed to Seattle with my two teenage sons, Matthew (age 19) and Timothy (age 15). Our mission was simple: hand Matthew off to the Air Force at Seattle.

We left on our journey shortly after Matthew said goodbye to everyone at church. When we arrived in Seattle later that evening, Timothy and I planned to drop Matthew off at the Air Force processing station and then go to stay overnight with my brother, Gregory. The next morning, Timothy and I would watch Matthew take his final oath before he flew out with the Air Force to San Antonio for Basic Training.

As I drove the long stretch of highway from Coeur d’Alene Idaho to Seattle Washington, I reflected on the events leading up to this journey.

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Struggle to Find Your True Self

One of the most intriguing characters in all of literature is Dr. Alexandre Manette from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.

For eighteen years, Dr. Manette had been imprisoned in the Bastille, during which time he progressively descended into a state of chronic depression. The trauma of almost two decades of solitary confinement eventually resulted in Dr. Manette losing his mind and becoming merely a shadow of his former self. Upon his release, the doctor’s senses gradually returned to him under the gentle care of his daughter, Miss Lucie Manette. Even after being restored to health, however, he continued to struggle against the fruit of his long captivity, a struggle that involved occasional relapses. Throughout his quiet and relentless struggle, the doctor was completely absorbed with serving his family and friends, and even risking his life to meet their needs.

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Orthodox Spirituality and Self-Care

What role does self-care play in the spiritual life? Earlier this year someone suggested to me that self-care is basically selfishness. I can understand why someone might think that: after all, Christianity teaches that we find our true self, not by grasping good things for ourselves, but by giving our self away (Luke 9:24). The message of the gospel is that we become more truly ourselves when we strive to fulfill the needs of others, preferring other people’s wellbeing to our own (Romans 12:10; Matthew 20:16). But does that mean that we should eschew any focus on our own wellbeing and self-care?

I don’t think so.

One of my favorite books is the letters that St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407) wrote to Saint Olympia (c. 361/68–408). These letters were written after the Saint was exiled from Constantinople where he had served as a pastor. Through the correspondence, St. John continually admonished St. Olympia to attend to her emotional self-care, and to take care of her own needs in order that she can be effective in helping others.

The Eastern Orthodox psychologist and professor, Dr. Albert Rossi, made the same point in his book Becoming a Healing Presence.

“On an airplane, as a flight prepares to depart, the flight attendant tells the passengers that, in case of an emergency, oxygen bags will drop from overhead. Those passengers with infants will receive two masks. The adult is to put his or her own oxygen mask on first, and only then put a mask on the infant.

For me, as an Italian grandfather, those instructions are counterintuitive. I want to give my life for my grandchild, to care for her first, and then myself. But—and this is a big but—if I truly love my granddaughter, I will put my own oxygen mask on first, then hers. The sequence is vital to my granddaughter’s survival. If I don’t take care of myself first, both of us might be lost.

The oxygen mask example is a model for becoming a healing presence to others. If I don’t take care of myself first, I have nothing to give to others. People seek me out as a counselor and expect that when they come into my office, I have time and energy for them. They don’t need a tired, grumpy, sleep-deprived, inattentive, and self-absorbed counselor. The only way I can have something to give is if I have allowed Christ to care for me first and foremost. There is no other way.

I begin to care for myself by centering my being, my soul-mind-body. I allow Christ to center me by gradually becoming still inwardly, which is no small task in today’s environment.”

Listening: the Cornerstone to Healthy Relationships

couple listening to each otherLearning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Reframing

Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa (1925–2006)

When Romania was taken over by the Communists in 1944, they began rounding up Christians and sending them to prison. One young Christian who found himself caught in the communist backlash was George Calciu.

George Calciu was first imprisoned in 1948 and sent to Pitesti Prison. Pitesti was part of an experiment on new torture methods designed to eliminate all vestiges of humanity from the human soul. The goal in these hideous experiments wasn’t simply to pressure the prisoners to renounce their Christian faith; rather, the goal was to break down their entire sense of self, to cause them to forget who they even were. The inmates were compelled to deny that they loved God, that they loved their country, that they loved their mother and father—in short, to renounce everything that made them human.

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