What is the greatest addiction today? Opiates? Alcohol? Gambling? Mobile phones? Sex? Video games? Nicotine? The list of candidates could get very long.
In the 1980s, I was one of a group of teachers sent by our principal for training to deal with chemical dependency. At the training program, we were not taught pharmacology. We were told that it is more important to know why kids take drugs. The answer: To feel good. Emotionally, that is, not physically.
That hypothesis always stuck with me, in spite of its seeming reliance on Carl Rogers. I remain convinced of its truth as drug use has burgeoned (Who knew about oxycodone in the ’80s?) and as addictions have multiplied (Who played video games in the ’80s?).
Our Greatest Addiction
However, based on my observations on a wide range of experiences and my reflections on reading in a vast array of subjects (though not as an expert in the field of treating addiction), I have come to the conclusion that feeling good emotionally has itself become our greatest addiction. Feeling good emotionally is the addiction underlying every other addiction. Our culture has become literally obsessed with feeling good.
One reason for my conviction is that the words most often used today are feel and feeling (in reference to emotions, not the five senses). I am convinced we would become rich if we got a dollar for every time we heard or read the words feel and feeling. Most people say “I feel” instead of, “I think,” “I believe,” “I assume,” “I conclude,” “I judge,” “I suggest,” “I predict,”…. I will stop there.
I have another reason for my conviction. When someone wants to give profound advice, there is almost always a default counsel: “Follow your heart,” or its other versions, “Follow your passion” and “Follow your dreams.”
Emotions are the altar at which our society now worships. One reason, I believe (not feel!), for the decline in religion is our enthrallment with emotion. The rhetorical question of our times is this: Who needs to follow Jesus Christ when I can follow my heart?
This addiction is strong within the Church as well as outside of it. In the last fifty years there has been a great deal of time spent on emotions in religious education, homilies, retreats, and spiritual direction. Doctrine? Why be Catholic? Not so much. Adoration of God for the sake of adoration of God? Not so much. Consideration of sin? Not so much (except for when we have failed to be “loving”). God has been turned into The Giver of Good Emotions who can beat the world at its own emotional game. May God bless those in the Church who have not drunk the Kool-Aid of emotionalism. (I must confess that I did for a while.)
It wasn’t always this way. In my freshman year of college, Spring of 1973, I took a course called, “The Theology of Religious Experience.” It was the first time I was ever in a classroom where the instructor asked students what we were feeling about the topic. My classmates and I responded by giving our opinions so our instructor clarified that he was asking for our emotions. We did not know how to talk about our emotions. He had to prompt us: “Are you glad? Sad? Angry? Worried? Don’t tell me if you are confused or agree or disagree. Those aren’t emotions, those are states of mind. Describe your heart, not your head.”
That college experience is just one example of how our society has gone from being philosophically- and theologically-oriented to being psychologically- and sociologically-oriented. We have gone from being a society in the habit of asking, “True or false?” “Right or Wrong?” to one that asks, “How does that feel?” In our culture, we have discovered that having emotions is far easier than thinking. Emoting has turned our nation into a post-Christian society, although the educated neo-pagans among us still try to mimic Western tradition’s pursuit of objective truth by dressing up their emotions in polysyllabic words.
Now, Catholic doctrine affirms that emotions are an integral part of being human. We cannot avoid having emotions; we are not machines. And Catholic doctrine affirms that spontaneous emotions, in and of themselves, are not sinful. It is not a sin simply to have strong emotions, even prurient feelings, or to have negative emotions, such as hate, anger, disgust. So it is good to be in touch with our feelings no matter what those feelings may be. But having emotions can also pose big dangers to the spirit.
The Dangers of Emotions
One danger is that our emotions are potentially a bottomless pit. It is too easy, once we get in touch with our feelings, to stay there, to wallow in our emotions. Emotions are powerful. If we do not control them, they will control us. When feeling-good-about-myself controls me, I become a spiritual narcissist. I do not focus on God and His Will; I focus on my feelings, my feelings, my feelings. I turn God into the Great-Accepter-of-Me-Just-as-I-Am.
Why are the pews increasingly empty? The preaching of “God loves you just as you are” over the last fifty years has been highly successful in clearing out our churches. If God loves me just as I am, God doesn’t really care about what I think and do. It’s all good! God loves me as the one who doesn’t go to Mass anymore. God loves me as the one who pays no attention to all those parish programs aimed at making me feel good about myself (when I already do). God loves me as the one who does not financially support the Church. God loves me as the one who doesn’t pray. God loves me as the one who cares more about what the Latest Guru says than what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says. God loves me as the one who does with my body whatever makes me feel good about myself at the time. God loves me when I no longer care if God loves me. It’s all good!
Another danger is that emotions do not tell us what reality is. When you were three years old, did your fear that there was a monster under your bed tell you the reality of your bedroom? Did their initial feelings of safety on the morning of September 11, 2001, tell those in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and on the hijacked jets the reality of the pending disaster? Emotions are a response to a perceived situation. God does not reveal Himself through our emotions. God most reveals Himself through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as they are clarified in Catholic doctrine. Our emotions about God do not tell us the reality of God but about how we are responding to what we perceive to be God. And our perceptions, like our emotions, could well be out of touch with the reality of God.
We should not automatically “follow our hearts.” Our hearts have not been exempted from the results of Original Sin. Our hearts are fallen—like our bodies, wills, and minds. Our hearts are not infallible. Did not every school shooter hear countless times that he should follow his heart? What they needed to hear was, rather, “beware of your heart”—it can move you to commit evil.
The greatest danger is that emotions can keep us from the happiness for which God made us. Yes, happiness is, in one sense, a positive emotional state—contentment, enjoyment, gladness, even exhilaration. And happiness includes feeling good physically—pleasure, comfort, health, the rush of adrenalin. Thinking that this is all there is to happiness results in living life by going from one thing that feels good to another thing that feels good without ever seeking deeper happiness—namely, a state of existence, fulfillment, a meaningful life, which is so much more than feelings. Happiness is being as close to God as we can be.
Recovery from our addiction comes from seeking happiness as St Augustine defined it. To paraphrase his De Trinitate (Book XIII, Chapter 5): Happiness is not simply getting what we want, but getting what we should want. What we should want is that which is objectively good. Happiness is not simply what feels good, but what is objectively good regardless of how it feels – and getting what we should want does not always feel good.
This might be more obvious with regard to our physical wellbeing. Anyone who has ever achieved anything significant has done so by feeling physically bad along the way. Studying does not always feel good to the successful student; practicing does not always feel good to the successful athlete or musician; working does not always feel good to the successful business person. All success involves pushing oneself, which involves some physical discomfort.
What is not recognized enough nowadays is that the deep happiness of fulfillment includes feeling emotionally bad at times. In order to have a life worth living, a life in response to God’s revelation, a life in friendship with Jesus Christ that is open to the Holy Spirit, we will not be able to avoid some negative emotions. Pushing ourselves to love God and our neighbor will involve emotional discomfort. We will not only experience such negative emotions as worry, awkwardness, impatience, boredom, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, remorse, despair, sadness, disdain, fear, anger, etc. in our relationships with others; but we may well experience these emotions in our relationship with God.
This also applies to how we feel about ourselves. To encounter the Living God is to realize our limitations, especially our difficulty avoiding sin. As St. Paul realized, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my [body’s] members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15, 22-24)
- S. Lewis had another striking observation:
If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and we are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. . . . God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from…. [T]he Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. (Mere Christianity, Book I, Part 5)
Our Lord tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God and then everything else will be ours (Matthew 6:33). The Kingdom of God, as St. Augustine would say, is what we should want more than anything else, including avoiding bad feelings. The Kingdom of God is the ultimate happiness. The best way to seek it is by growing in faithfulness to all Catholic doctrine, not just the teachings that make us feel good. We seek to know “True or False?” “Right or Wrong?” instead of “How can I feel good?”
Since true faith embraces right reason, since grace builds on nature, subordinating our emotions to seeking the Kingdom includes availing ourselves of the health sciences when we need them. The Divine Physician supports professional help geared to true happiness.
But remember, St. Paul’s answer to his own question, “Who will deliver me . . .?” is clear: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!”