Have you ever wondered what emotions are for, and how they fit in with a life of faith and reflection? Emotions are important because they give texture to experience, even though at times we feel as though our emotions confound us or get in the way. Many believe that emotions are nothing more than a vestige of animal life, and that they serve only to corrupt reason. Achieving happiness, some say, means setting emotions aside.
But if you accept the premise that all created things are good, you won’t be surprised that the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees emotions as natural tendencies which can lead us to prudence and moral virtue. The topic of emotion, or “the passions,” is discussed in the Catechism, sections 1763 to 1766. These articles are brief, but they are important, and some would say life-changing. So let’s take a closer look to see how the Church has preserved exquisite wisdom about how emotions fit concretely in the context of our call to beatitude. The Catechism’s source on this topic, as is often the case, is the teaching of thirteenth century philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Natural Components of the Human Person
The Catechism says “the passions are natural components of the human psyche (CCC 1764).” The Church recognizes the scientific fact that emotions are physiological movements of the sensitive appetite. They involve our sensory-motor systems, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Neuroscientists agree that emotions arise out of the brain from clearly identifiable circuits that react selectively to significant stimuli in the world. Certain objects in the environment trigger physiological changes which we consciously experience as fear, panic, pleasure, rage, seeking, play, and a host of other conditions shared by lower animals.
What neuroscientists disagree on is how fixed and automatic the links are between objects, brain circuits, and behavior patterns. St. Thomas recognized early on what neuroscience confirms: there are two kinds of response patterns, those based on innate pathways, which I would call triggers, and those based on higher cognitive powers, which I would call intelligent appraisals. Human beings are marked by their ability to form highly articulated appraisals of objects and situations; lower animals are not.
Triggers. In the extreme case, emotions are signaled by well-defined objects with clear meaning. When a male stickleback fish sees the red belly of another male, it lurches directly into an attack pattern. The sight of the red belly is a sufficient condition for attack. It could be said that the fish becomes enraged, and inclined to attack in response to recognizing a threat, signaled by the red belly.
Appraisals. Humans bring their profound capacity of reason to bear on the objects in the world. We don’t just see things and react. We have thoughts about them. We have come to see them as good for us, or bad for us. We weigh them in the scheme of things to determine their worth and value. Our life experiences, our joys and sufferings, our biases, goals, aspirations, self-worth, etc. determine how we construe various circumstances, and create in us anticipations of events. Appraisals are what make human emotions less automatic, and more personal. Thus, the Church teaches, following St. Thomas that human emotions “form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind (CCC 1764).
The Catechism says that emotions in their most general definition “incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil (CCC 1763).” How we think about things prepares us to encounter them. It causes us to anticipate certain rewards or punishments.
If a person conceives of an object as something good, the resulting emotion is some shade of the positive emotion of “love,” which the Catechism calls “the most fundamental” emotion (CCC 1765). Love of an object causes desire, affection, attachment, delight, excitement, admiration, and so on. All other emotions flow from this fundamental passion. If a person conceives of an object as bad, or a situation as one in which a good object is threatened, the resulting emotion tends to be on the negative spectrum of hatred, aversion, dislike, disdain, fear, anger, and so on.
The Informative Value of Emotions
Now let’s put all this together. Emotions are felt when we approach a situation. They reveal what we consciously and unconsciously anticipate will happen. The accuracy of these anticipations reveal our degree of self-mastery, our practiced ability to appraise situations truthfully.
For example: Are you angry as you approach a situation? Somehow you are anticipating that something of value to you is in danger of being taken away. What is that thing? How is it of value to you? The value of the thing is shown by the intensity of your anger.
When we feel at home in our emotional skin, we come to know genuine joy after a situation that we anticipated with feelings of excitement and delight. This genuine comfort we feel afterward is a sign that we have good self-awareness, that the things we cherish and hold dear really are good and dear.
Conversely, sometimes we learn that the things approached with gladness are things that really are to be avoided or overcome, even worthy of righteous anger.
For example, we approach a gathering of friends with a spring in our step, anticipating a wonderful time that evening. Yet every time we meet with these friends, with these same expectations, we feel strangely let down. We feel psychologically unsettled, disturbed. Was it the fact that we gossiped and backstabbed all evening? The fact that we drank to excess and felt sick the next day? This is the voice of conscience. Remember that St. Thomas taught that conscience (Aristotle: synderesis) is linked very closely to prudence. The point of conscience is not to feel bad feelings. The point is to rethink the cognitions that led us there. When we have an uneasy feeling about an event we thought we would enjoy, this is a sign that our appraisals and expectations are distorted, or disordered. We are not seeing the world as it really is, so we need to think more deeply about ourselves and what we’re really up to.
Similarly, we might have an emotion of dread, or anxiety as we approach a situation, and are subsequently confirmed in our dread when the event occurs! It was terrible. What do we do then? Well, if your anticipation turned out to be accurate, perhaps this really is a situation to be avoided. Or if it is a situation that can’t be avoided, remember you can change the way you feel by contemplating the event in a different way, as being in some way good and valuable for you. For example, if you’re apprehensive about going to the doctor, maybe you can view it as a chance to deflect your discomfort by showing kindness to those in the waiting room, giving someone a welcomed smile who might be very overwhelmed with life just now. Situations are always rich and multi-textured. It is easy, if you try, to find the good in some aspect of that thing you dread. If you practice this reflection, it is life changing.
The emotions are in our lives to help us enjoy life, and to help us avoid pain. “By his emotions man intuits the good and suspects evil” (CCC 1771). But because we have the blessing of intellect, we can unfortunately use reason, or distortions of reason, to deceive ourselves into attributing “goodness” to a situation that is in truth evil. Our emotions can’t fool us for long as long as we cultivate the cardinal virtue of prudence, which exercises the conscience. Conscience plays a natural, corrective role in our affective life. If we develop skills in discerning our inner life, we can use the emotions to help us advance toward beatitude.