We have all experienced those times when our emotions get away from us, the times we get more excited by something than we should, the breakup that takes longer to get over than is “normal”, a bubbling anger and frustration at seemingly little things. It’s something we start learning to control from the age of two, from the time our parents coach us as we kick and scream on the floor. Other times we find we aren’t as emotional as we expect ourselves to be, the new promotion you just can’t work up any enthusiasm about it, a first date that barely seems to excite you or a series or fortunate events that fly right past you with barely a glance. Psychologists call this emotional self-regulation, “the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable…”1
St Augustine had this coined as “ordo amoris” the order of love. There is a natural order to the degree in which affections should be attached to every object and situation which is appropriate. That is you do not attach a deep abiding hatred to a stone nor do you consider your affections for another as trivial. This is where reason should and must step in. “The heart never takes the place of the head, but it can, and should obey it.”2
In today’s world some of us seem to have forgotten this lesson of old. Those who have trouble seem to have fallen into three categories – The immature, those unable to take responsibility for their feelings; the intellectuals, those who think feelings should be managed, dealt with and hidden from view, and finally the zombies, those who have numbed both heart and mind. It doesn’t need to be like this, we are meant to experience feeling in its entire glorious color, that’s why we have a heart. We are meant to judge whether those feelings are valid for the situation and act accordingly, that’s why we have our minds, and neither should be ignored, dulled or let reign uncontrolled.
We have a heart for a reason. It’s the part of us that makes life shine. When we love, laugh and live in the moment feelings brighten our way. When we find our passions feelings drive us to places we never thought we could go. When we lose and grieve feelings show us the importance we placed on those people we lost, they show us that we have a hole that needs filling. When we are hurt feelings show us the lessons we need to learn, when we are scared and afraid feelings show us the dragons we need to conquer and point the way forward to become greater than we were before. We need our heart, it’s important, without it there is neither reason nor point to life. We may as well be automatons repeating the same things over and over again.
Yet we have our mind for a reason, for reasoning. It’s the part that should tell the heart that losing 10 dollars is only annoying, not the end of the world. The mind is the side of us that, when the heart falls in love, looks to see if those affections are well placed. The side that understands the reasons behind grief, loss, fear, hurt and anger and either does something to fix these feelings or soothes the heart with whispers of the way things might be. The mind is the part of us that says any given feeling is appropriate, I’m allowed to feel the way I am because this is what life is all about. It’s our regulator for dealing with the outside world. It shouldn’t be forgotten when we are in the grips of strong emotion, nor should it be used to stir up emotion by overthinking or intellectualizing. When we see people who have let their heart rule, this is what we think, why can’t you use your mind to regulate your heart. Yet as everyone knows, sometimes that isn’t always as easy as it looks.
But guard thy heart from stone. Reason should rule but not with an iron fist. It should not ignore the heart and minimize the hearts feelings. That way leads to a world that is grey and lifeless, without wonder or joy. Years will be spent searching for happiness when the answer lays beating in your own chest. If it continues for long enough the heart stops, ignored for so long it has no reason to continue to beat. You can’t numb your heart of just one feeling; when you do you numb all your feelings. When your heart stops and turns to stone you become that robot, imitating life never really knowing why. If you ever come to the crossroads where you are faced with the choice of numbing the heart or feeling incredible pain, choose the pain, for if you can feel pain you can also feel the good things, things such as love, laughter and joy. They may not be evident at the time but they are there and ready to be felt, but only if you don’t numb the heart.
Practice finding “ordo amoris”, the order of love; all feelings are valid in and of themselves, but not all feelings are valid in intensity for the context you are in. Use your mind to show your heart the intensity it should be feeling if it is awry. Use your heart to show the mind the reason for living. Most of all use them both but do not let the heart rule.
Photo: Flickr/Eva Blue
1. Emotional Self Regulation
2. C.S Lewis, 1943, The Abolition of Man
Photo: Flickr/Eva Blue