Sunday, September 8, 2013

Syria . . . Thoughts in the Middle of the Night . . . and Emotional Reasoning

One of my favorite verses, and one I've used many times here is Jeremiah 17:9.  Basically, my paraphrase, it says that the emotions are deceitful, not trust worthy and are impossible to fully understand.

I've been thinking about he complexities of emotions for several reasons.  The main one starts with myself.  I will summarize by saying that in my business world there have been some issues of personnel, as with any business.  A key employee has good days, great days and terrible days.  It was after one of those terrible days that I awaken in the middle of the night with thoughts of frustration and frankly anger (a world I was told to avoid and pretend didn't exist when I was an evangelical).  The aftertaste of those middle-of-the night thoughts lingered in my mind after I had awakened.

I often start my morning at 6:30 at the coffee shop where I start to work on business things with my lap top. That morning I keyed out a letter to that employee.  It had a long list of their failures built on the framework of anger.  I remember asking myself over and over if this was the right thing to do . . . and my rational self (or so I thought) said yes . . . it was time I did this. 

By the time I left the coffee shop I sent the letter to the employee via our interoffice  communication system.

But as the morning progressed (and the employee, to my good fortune, called in sick that morning) I felt my emotions shifting.  Things ALWAYS look worse in the middle of the night.  But as the sun came up over the mountains and the caffeine made its way through my bloodstream and into my brain, I had second thoughts.

In our communication system, and since I'm the administrator for it, it was easy for me to open the letter and to read it again.  I was horrified. I was horrified by the tone and the fact that I had listed several failures in a row.  This reminded me so much of the night my old evangelical pastor sat at our dinning room table yelling at me and going through his long list of my moral failures, and he was numbering them.  It was when we got to number 8 that I lost my temper with him.  So, here I was doing almost the same thing, but not face to face and not with a screaming voice.

I was able to move the letter to the "filed" box on this employee's system, but it can't be deleted because this is part of a medical office and all communications are considered a legal document, and thus can't be deleted.  I just hope she never finds it, and I have to remain prepared in case she does.

But the bigger picture was that I was thinking about the power of emotional reasoning.  What made perfect sense and seemed very rational in the middle of the night or early morning, seemed to me to be a horrible mistake a few hours later.

I've spoken before that the way I see it is that our senses collect data. Our rational minds attempt to make sense of that data, but then our emotions act like a lens to either focus our attention or distort reality.  It makes it very hard to know if our thoughts are good thoughts or not.

I do believe that our emotions are God-given and not just the effects of the fall.  Emotions are usually re-labeled by evangelicals into spiritual terms (the spirit moved me, God spoke to my heart, I felt God saying, the Holy Spirit pointed out to me and etc.) because of the dualistic view that all things of the brain (a physical entity) are bad and only spiritual things are good.

But I do believe that the emotions are part of the physical brain and in themselves are not bad.  They are the spice of life.  The emotions can take the notes of an orchestra (as I was talking about in my last post) from a mathematical formula into a feeling of beauty to the point it can bring tears to our eyes. Thank God of emotions!

But the second issue is hearing the debate over Syria. The fool is the one who things that choice of what to do is simple or obvious.  There are no easy answers in that situation.  Either action or no action will each create its own nightmare.  Within Syria, there are no easy divisions between the good guys and the bad guys.  You can't look for white or black hats.

I watched a fantastic report on Frontline.  They were able to penetrate both sides of the war in one village and the thoughts and attitudes were almost identical.  The side they happened to be talking to only wanted peace, but they were willing to fight to keep the other side from raping their daughters and killing their children. They each said the same thing.

As I listened to the arguments, rationality was refined by emotion.  The emotion was deeply rooted in the person speaking's own sense of self worth.  The Republicans just wanted to argue that acting or not acting (take your pick) each point to how terrible the Democrats and Obama are. And it played both ways.

Then you interview those in Syria. One side begs for action from the US while another side argues that they have proof that the rebels are the ones who used chemical weapons just to draw the US to their side.  You head starts to spin after awhile. If we were dealing with rationality deprived of emotion, that would be one thing. But when you wrap it up with emotional reason, it is hard to know anything for sure.

There are no simple answers but to have the humility to ask the question, is this real or my emotional mind speaking?


Anonymous said...

Hey Michael, I'm still checking in...

I hope things start evening out for you soon, and that you're able to discuss the issues with your employee appropriately. Employee issues are one of the reasons I did not pursue building a transcription service years ago... I'm sure it's not easy at times, maybe most of the time.

Re the heart, you know, of course, that in scripture it is not the seat of emotion; that's "the bowels". The heart is used as the signifier of the very deepest aspect of the totality of one's being, and actually is closer to indicating the reasoning faculty, though not entirely. The ancients thought the brain was connected to reproduction, not reasoning.

I checked that verse in my New English Translation of the Septuagint. The LXX text actually represents a Hebrew linguistic tradition older by a millennium than the Masoretic text, which is the basis of most Bible translation. Since the LXX is the text that is quoted in the NT, the LXX is what takes precedence for Orthodox Christians when there is a difference between them. I thought there might be a more charitable (more monist?) reading there, and indeed, that's what I found:

"The heart is deep above all else, and so is man, and who shall understand him?"

Nothing there to support Total Depravity...

I think I mentioned to you previously a book you might find very helpful: "Bread, Water, Wine and Oil" by Fr Meletios Webber. The first few chapters are worth the price of the whole thing, I think. The author describes the Orthodox understanding of the "inner workings" of a person in a way that has made sense to me like no other. The rest of the book is an examination of how the sacraments of the church are meant to work for wholeness in a person, with God using ordinary "stuff" to enable us to encounter him. Maybe now is the time to read it, at least for an alternative view with a kinder God?

Also, you have a very wonderful resource nearby, Fr. Tryphon at the All-Merciful Savior Monastery on Vashon. He's a big, outgoing man of Norwegian ancestry with a lot of compassion and some training in psychology; he also serves as a local police chaplain and lectures at Pac Lutheran a lot. He won't try to convert you, though he will speak to you from an Orthodox point of view. You can read his blog here:

Kind regards-

j. Michael Jones said...

You always have good recommendations. I'm sorry to say that I'm not reading much these days. I guess, more accurately is that I'm consumed by reading, but not pleasure reading but reading chart notes, medical studies . . . things I have to do all day every day to keep up with work. I miss the days that I was reading for pleasure and am hoping to get back to that soon and would like to read Webber's book. My daughter just graduated from Pac Lutheran so I wonder if she ever heard Tryphon.

Anonymous said...

When people start saying "the spirit moved me.. Or is saying to me..." things get very personal fast. And sometimes things get awkward after I hear the rest. And sometimes not and I move on with my day.

What do you think about the Holy Spirit, then? If it does not change one's emotions or affect one's thinking? I am asking in the most honest way.

j. Michael Jones said...

I guess I would answer honestly too . . . I don't know. It is a mystery to me where one (emotions) end and the Holy Spirit begins. But I do know for certainty that the idea of "The Holy Spirit move me" or "God said to me" and etc. are grossly overused, usually for manipulative reasons.