A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
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.
In the early fifth century, the great preacher of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia. He had provoked the wrath of the empress by speaking out against an image she had erected of herself directly across from his church, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. When games were played in front of the idolatrous image, this distracted worshipers from the prayer services. Hoping to silence St. John, Empress Eudoxia sent soldiers to carry him into exile in 404. There followed a period of persecution against those who supported the exiled preacher. Soldiers forcibly broke up church services of those who were loyal to St. John, abusing the worshipers and even stripping ear rings off the women, pulling off parts of their ears in the process. Some of St. John’s followers were even tortured and killed.
The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflictions. (From Discourses and Sayings):
“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it fores him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.
“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
The root of anxiety is the illusion that we are separate from God.
I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me. Shut your eyes and imagine that every single person on earth is thinking about you right now. Moreover, imagine that every person is not only thinking about you, but loving you and working to arrange all things for your benefit. Of course that could never happen, but just imagine for a moment that it were possible and what it would feel like. In this thought experiment, everyone in the world feels the same protective love towards you that a father and mother feel for their young child.
Now I want to ask you a question: in the state of affairs I’ve asked you to imagine, would you ever have reason to worry, to feel anxiety or be insecure? Would you need to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not.
Throughout his book Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica frequently returns to the theme that when we think negatively about another person, we actually injure them spiritually. Similarly, we can be injured by other people’s antagonistic thoughts about ourselves. The solution to both these problems is simple.
Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure nad peaceful thoughts that would have come from you. If you are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy.