Don't Worship Your Emotions

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Every major spiritual tradition offers this challenge: Don’t worship your emotions!

Don’t love only when you can feel natural sympathy. Don’t love only when you can feel good and clean about it. Don’t let your moral decisions be dictated by your emotions, even when they seem to operating at their highest level.

What’s at issue here? Fuller maturity and what’s highest in Christian discipleship. When Jesus tells us that all the commandments can be boiled down to a single one, love, he adds a caveat: Love, as I have loved you.

How did he love? He continued to love, forgive, and give his life even when those he was loving were destroying him. That’s the challenge, but it isn’t easy. Why not?

If you were bullied as a child, laughed at, humiliated, and shamed before your friends and classmates, it isn’t easy (no matter how much you have grown and matured) to feel sympathy for the bully who, as you have learned since, was only acting out the abuse he had received from someone else, probably from his own father. It’s more natural to continue to hate him and rejoice that his later life is as laden with problems and unhappiness as were his school days.

If you are a woman who has been hit by a man, perhaps even by your own spouse, and made to feel the helplessness and humiliation of that, it is hard, emotionally impossible perhaps, to feel real empathy for the plight of men (let alone for the man who struck you) just because you now know that men are more wounded than women, that their suicide rates are infinitely higher, and that they struggle much more than women to express themselves, to give and to receive love, and to enjoy life’s simple joys.

If you have been sexually abused it is understandably impossible, at least at one level to feel compassion for pedophiles and sexual predators of any kind, even once you know that every victimizer was himself first victimized and that this wound is the cause of his deep sickness and that the stigma of that sickness is the new leprosy in our society.

And if your emotions are normal it is hard to be opposed to the death penalty when the person awaiting the sentence is unrepentant, rationalizing, hard, and is blaming everyone else for his problems. It’s easier to oppose the death penalty for someone whose heart is repentant and tearful and who wants only to make amends to the family of his victim.

But that’s the stretch! That’s precisely what we are invited to when scripture says: “Sing a new song!” What is our old song and what is wrong with it?

Our old song is the song we naturally sing, even at our best, when we let our emotions, our natural instincts, and our bruised and needy egos dictate our sympathies. When we do this, we give out our love and empathy only when our emotions, naturally protective and wounded, allow us to, namely, whenever we can feel clean, good, and cathartic in loving and forgiving. That is why it is so difficult for us to have a consistent ethic of life within which we are as solicitous to save the life of a guilty murderer as we are to save the life of an innocent unborn child.

We struggle with this because emotion rather than our discipleship is dictating our sympathies. We are naturally loving and empathic, but in a very restricted way, namely, we give out our love and empathy only when we can feel good about it, that is, when it is clean, wanted, respected, and appreciated. We can love, forgive, and bless someone who wants to be loved, forgiven, and blessed by us, but, we find it existentially impossible to do the same when that person has hurt us, hates us, blames us, and wants us dead.

But that’s precisely what Christian discipleship and full human maturity call us to, namely, to be able to have real empathy, forgiveness, and love for those who have hurt us, humiliated us, blame us for their unhappiness, remain unrepentant, and, in essence, curse us.

A couple of years ago, when all the negative publicity about sexual abuse among clergy was at high fever, a very sincere, good-hearted, Catholic man said to me: “I’ll never give another penny to the Catholic Church! I will not have any of my money supporting a pedophile!”

That’s nature speaking, but it’s a long way from the love and understanding that Jesus preached. In essence, what this sincere man is doing is worshipping his emotions by saying: “I can give my love and support when I can feel good about it, but I can’t give my love and support when I can’t feel good about it, no matter that a pedophile suffers from the most unglamorous of all diseases.

But love calls us to more than that and, in order to get to that higher level, we must stop worshipping our emotions.