Tatyana Tomsickova Photography via Getty Images
Commentaries and observations about the conflicting moral beliefs and psychological issues facing our culture.
New essay every week
"AWAY WITH WORDS"
You will receive an email announcing future posts to "Today's Ideas."
Your email address is safe with us, it is held with strict confidence and is not shared.
Sign up now
10 December 2017
An Elder Looks At Feeling Good
A dear and honest friend – a friend of many years -- writes to tell me that last week’s essay on political correctness presented only negative sides of feelings. In that essay, I wrote about the “tyranny of feelings” as a driving force in the success of political correctness and the erosion of our Constitutional protections from government interference.
My friend suggests – correctly -- that feelings are useful and valuable when expressed appropriately. More than that, he reminds me – correctly -- that the proper expression of feelings is essential for a balanced and healthy life.
Balance: balance is the crucial word.
Balance means we must consider the consequences of how we express our feelings and emotions. Feelings must be balanced by reason. Reason is guided by moral principles, by good judgment and by the virtue of prudence (among others). It is this interaction of mind and feelings, this balancing act between reason and emotion, between impulse and temperance, that sums up our moral struggle along an arduous path toward maturity.
Life Is A Moral Enterprise
Life always involves moral decisions because life is a tug-of-war between virtues and their opposites. Life is a constant choice to do what is right and prudent for ourselves, to do what is good and kind for others … or the choice to do what is selfish and rash, cold and uncaring, thoughtless and harmful. Even scenarios which seem morally neutral and devoid of moral content still contain the seeds of choice and accountability. And our power to choose is the threshold to the moral dimension of our lives and of the relationships we build.
Feelings are kept in effective moral balance by a conscience formed in virtue. But keeping that balance is a struggle because it demands responsible decisions and practical action based on candor and humility.
Without the oversight of reason and the self-restraint of virtue, our raw, unstudied feelings may be likened to the impulsive child who is given to unruly self-expression. Reason and conscience balance feeling’s power and direct its overt expression by reminding us of the consequences we face, be they punitive or sanctifying.
Self-Control And Context
There’s two tricky things about feelings:
one is 1) self-control, the other is 2) context.
- Self-control obviously refers to how we express our feelings. Unchecked feelings produce urges and impulses which can overcome us in an instant. Feeling-impulses can break through the strongest defenses and incline even the calmest of souls to primitive outbursts or reckless actions. Self-control is indispensable.
- Context defines the specific roles and responsibilities we accept at various stages of life (child, parent, student, spouse, banker, teacher, politician and so forth). Specific moral duties and ethical expectations come with each role. These duties dictate certain sets of behaviors which we accept and honor – or should.
Context also sets limits and boundaries. These limits present ethical challenges and moral choices. We are (or, again, should be) guided by the dictates of conscience found in the virtues. The virtues (e.g., fidelity) emphasize the fundamental self-restraint we are expected to observe, the social contracts we must honor, the moral demands we must accept as part of our state of life. Some limits and expectations are contractual, some assumed – but they are there, always there, enlightening the moral nature of human life and the potential goodness in all human relationships.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Feelings can be very strong, as we all know. We have all said and done things which we later regret, things which make us look and feel foolish when – for whatever reason – we ignore the fundamentals of self-control.
The secret to self-control, to staying ahead of our feeling-impulses, is to focus on their power over our Better Self, to learn when they appear and what sets us off. We have to be smart -- and honest -- about our weak points. We have to choose how, when and to whom we express ourselves, to be prudent in what we say and how we say it -- especially when our feelings are electric with energy, when we are ready to let go and are nearing a trigger moment… that instant when we lose it.
Wisdom and maturity – the hard-earned talents that usually take a lifetime to achieve -- tell us that feelings need the saving restraint of virtue. Our raw feelings need reasoned virtue to soothe our vulnerabilities and calm our bruised. needy egos, lest we be hostage to our emotions. Righteousness and candor have a place in our emotional lives, but without virtue to moderate and restrain our self-righteous alibis, we will be ill-served by impulsivity and bluster, which congratulate themselves because they seem “authentic.”
Thus, it is wise to remember that the mark of adulthood is the manner in which we express our feelings appropriately, with moderated restraint. In fact, the mark of emotional maturity is the style by which we properly manage our feeling-impulses within the limits of social restraint and moral virtue.
Feelings which are in sync with reasoned virtue and altruistic concern become commitments. Our behavior is then honorable, even if no one else knows or cares.
Moral virtues are always – always -- at the heart of a stable emotional -- and spiritual -- life. Virtues are always at the heart of our struggle for moral maturity, emotional stability and spiritual goodness. Virtue is always at the heart of our life-long search of our Better Self – i.e., for the generous, giving, altruistic part of our soul.
Everyone has a Better Self, an idealized version of who we want to be, of the person we truly want to be. As we pursue our Better Self, our reckless expressions of our feelings (sometimes felt only secretly, within us alone) tip us off to just how far we are straying from the virtuous path. Our struggle to reach our Better Self is surely nourished when we recognize that virtue and self-restraint are the signposts on that path. And the Better Self is always within us, always patiently waiting.
It is possible to dismiss that Better Self, possible to cease the search, to put our struggle for virtue aside. It is possible --- but doing this is ever so unwise.
Some people identify their Better Self with the achievement of the riches of Croesus or the body of Adonis or the wisdom of Solomon. For many of us elders, however, the Better Self is pleased simply to walk without a cane. We are blessed to see, with unblurred clarity, the faces and smiles of our loved ones … and to accept with gratitude the ineffable gift of Life -- all life.
Finally, take it from an elder: as we age and each year reminds us of how swiftly they do pass, our wearying search for wisdom finally tells us that it is feelings of tranquility, a peaceful mind, a prayerful day, a forgiving heart, a caring family, a good night’s sleep, an emotionally quiet soul -- and a dear and honest friend of many years – that are truly life’s best gifts.
Given such an abundance of God’s beneficence, one cannot help but feel good, very good, indeed.