Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986
Reason and emotion: Are they compatible? Or are they the polar opposites of the human potential?
So often humanists and Humanistic Jews are accused of being coldly rational, of denying the emotional side of the human personality. Our opponents proclaim this dichotomy between the mind and the heart, between logic and passion. Many times we accept this perception of our philosophy and come to believe that we are emotionally deficient.
However, this dichotomy is silly. We need to resist it.
The first step is to acknowledge certain truths about reason.
Reason is not the same as logic. To be reasonable is to be in touch with the facts, to be aware of reality. If you start out with a set of absurd premises, logic will lead you to a set of absurd conclusions. If you maintain that the earth is flat, you can logically conclude that you will fall off the end of it. Reason is as much concerned with the premises as with the procedures for arriving at the conclusion. Logical fundamentalists are not reasonable. And logical schizophrenics are just plain crazy.
Reason is not cold. Reason is a human faculty that has evolved over millions of years. It is tied to the human struggle for survival. Reasonable people, people who stay in touch with reality, have a better chance for survival than people who choose fantasies. The will to live, the passion to survive, is not cold. It provides the “heat” of human existence. Reason, as much as the emotions, is an agent of that life force. It gets its fuel from danger, crisis, and the need to make decisions.
Reason is the friend of emotion. Our desires and needs are emotional drives. But they are not always compatible. Our need for love is not always compatible with our need for dignity. Our need for safety does not always jibe with our need for adventure and change. We cannot satisfy all of our desires simultaneously. We have to choose. Reason is the human faculty that helps us decide which emotion to indulge and which desire to restrain. It makes us aware of the consequences of our behavior and places our needs in some sort of priority order. Being spontaneous is of no use if two “spontaneities” are competing for the same time and energy.
Reason and emotion complement each other. Discovering the truth is different from responding to the truth. Rational people can get very hot when it is time to get hot. The rational medical researcher may be coldly objective in trying to discover the cause of a disease and hotly passionate in leading the battle to eliminate it. The reasonable social activist may be clinically proper in studying the profile of the poor and inspired in the struggle to defend them. Reasonable people do not look to their emotions to find the truth. They save their feeling energy to act on it.
Reason cultivates courage. Quite often, the emotion that dominates our lives is fear, especially the fear of reality. There are so many games we play to avoid confronting painful facts. And we are so skilled at weaving fantasies about ourselves and others to defend our self-esteem. Courageous people need reason to fight their fear and to lead them to reality. Courageous people do not wish to live in a world of fantasy — both because it offends their dignity and because they cannot effectively change what they refuse to recognize.
What are some of the realities concerning our feelings and emotions that it is important for us to recognize?
Feelings are simply there. They cannot be dismissed. They cannot be expelled. They cannot be controlled like behavior. You can command people to be loving to others; but you cannot command them to love others. You can order your family to be nice to their enemies; but you cannot order them to stop hating the foe. What we feel and what we do are two different things. An ethic, whether philosophic or religious, that insists that people change their feelings is naive and out of touch with reality. All of us, much of the time, have feelings of hate, jealousy, anger, and fear. We cannot order them out of our minds. The test of our character is not whether we have these emotions; it is what we do with them. Behavior, not feelings, determines our character.
In the long evolutionary saga of humanity, every feeling served an important purpose. Our emotions are the internal reflection of behavior that, at one time, was necessary for survival. Love arranged for the nurturing of children and the bonding of parents. Anger kept intruders out of our space and defended our territory. Fear made us aware of dangers we could not control and persuaded us to run away. Hate severed our connection with harmful members of our community and enabled us to expel them. Jealousy reminded us of our competitive deficiencies and motivated us to improve our skills. Guilt emphasized our dependence on others and kept us loyal. Sadness enabled us to recognize defeat and to rest before our next encounter. No feeling is without its positive side. Even in our modern urban environment, where opportunities for confrontation are so frequent, this evolutionary reality holds true. Anger is still necessary to defend our dignity. Fear is still essential to keep us away from danger. Hate is still useful for resisting harmful relationships. Jealousy is still important for self- improvement. Guilt is still significant for preserving community. Sadness is still a step to personal recovery. Love is still indispensable to guarantee our future.
Spiritual living is not the same as spirituality… .Humanists believe firmly in the power of the human spirit, [but] they are wary of the “spiritual.”
Every feeling can be dangerous. Despite the common religious conviction that divine providence has designed us perfectly, our feelings are not harmonious. They often show up where they do not belong and stick around long after they should have departed. It is easy to see how anger, fear, hate, jealousy, guilt, and sadness can be inappropriate and lead to self-destruction. But love receives so much hype that we are reluctant ever to denounce it. Yet, in many human relations, love is masochistic, encouraging the lover to surrender dignity and to accept humiliation. In this present decade, when intellect is discounted and emotion is valued, it is important to remember that “being emotional” may not be as praiseworthy as some people think.
Feelings love to hide. Ever since Freud, we are very much aware that what we think we feel may not be what we really feel. The mind is able to repress uncomfortable thoughts and desires and to protect us from the pain of confronting them. Our consciousness celebrates love; our unconscious cherishes hate. Our consciousness seeks the spiritual; our unconscious is obsessed with sex. With such self-deception, sincerity becomes meaningless. What we honestly believe that we feel may be a fantasy of avoidance. Outsiders, observing us and listening to us, may discern more about our real feelings than we do. Thus, it is a dangerous cliche to say that all people know best what they want.
There are many emotional styles. Not all emotions are hot. Some emotions are cold. Indifference and resignation are emotional states as much as love and hate. If all behavior is attached to feeling — and we cannot avoid behaving — then every action or state of being has emotional content. Austere, withdrawn people are just as emotional as volatile screamers. They simply have different temperaments. Future-oriented, creative people are just as emotional as past- oriented, traditional people. They just have different feeling responses to the authority of ancestors. Dependable, supportive, but undemonstrative, people are just as loving as verbal, demonstrative huggers. They merely show their love in different ways.
Behavior often can change feelings. While it is true that emotions are simply there, undismissable, it is also true that they can change over the long run. Not all emotions. Some responses to life are too deeply rooted ever to go away — or even to experience slight alteration. But many feelings are reinforced by the behavior they inspire. We are afraid to swim and so we never try. And because we never try, our fear grows stronger. Dwelling on the fear through introspection does not drive it away; nor does understanding its causes relieve its intensity. Only when our will, in opposition to our fear, insists that we try to do what we are afraid to do — and we discover that we can do it — does our fear diminish. While behavior usually follows feelings, feelings sometimes follow behavior.
Ventilating our feelings calls for discretion. During the past two decades, it has become fashionable in psychotherapeutic circles to encourage people to release the feelings they are afraid to express. Holding in emotions is thought to be as dangerous as prolonged constipation. If you are angry, let other people know about your anger. If you are sad, let other people know about your sadness. The result of this fad is not a dramatic improvement in human behavior. Quite the contrary. People have simply grown accustomed to dumping their emotional garbage on people who are conveniently nearby. Marriages are destroyed. Friendships are disrupted. Work environments turn chaotic. An orgy of honesty traumatizes human relations and wreaks havoc with the fragile structure of courtesy, compassion, and discretion that makes society possible. In a world of tender egos and limited patience, wise people know that “holding in” can be a discipline for survival and happiness. Uncontrolled “dumping” is dangerous. Some thoughts should never be uttered. Some feelings should never be expressed.
Emotional experiences need character to tie them together. In our advanced consumer culture, clever manufacturers sell experiences as well as things. They stage an event and promise an “emotional high.” A rock concert, a religious revival, a weekend of meditation, a Hasidic farbrengen, a marathon of self-discovery — all are available to the general public for the picking. No training is required. No ideological commitment is solicited beforehand. No demands on future behavior are seriously made. Each event stands by itself as a fondly remembered experience. The “with-it” Jew can do Oriental mysticism, gestalt, Hasidism, Zen, and EST with little concern for their incompatibility. Since the only thing that counts is the emotional high of the experience itself, consistency is irrelevant. Of course, what is absent is something called character, that strong cord of consistent beliefs and values that gives substance to individuals and makes them more than a collection of incredible happenings. People with character are not searching for emotional highs. They derive their feeling of satisfaction from leading their lives in accordance with long-run principles and convictions.
Spirited living is not the same as spirituality. Humanists who have rich emotional lives understand that prose is often inadequate to express feelings of joy, wonder, exultation, and human solidarity. They surround themselves with the poetry of the arts, the beauty of music, painting, dance, theater, and the splendors of nature. Sometimes they are participants. But, in all cases, they affirm the value and glory of this natural world of life and death. While they believe firmly in the power of the human spirit, they are wary of the “spiritual.” This word has a specific meaning in Western culture. It is connected with the supernatural, the realms of deathless souls, divine intelligence, and “superior” worlds that transcend the “inferior” offerings of material existence. It is associated with men and women who have forgone the pleasures of the material world in order to serve the cause of a transcendent power. Many spiritual people are not very spirited. They prefer passive waiting to action, asceticism to joy, surrender to conflict.
Reasonable people know that the human spirit does not grow through pious reverence. It grows through struggle and defiance. The spirituality of the Baal Shem Tov may be impressive. But it cannot compare in emotional power to the heroic spirit of Prometheus and the secular defenders of the Warsaw ghetto.
In a time when the religious opposition is growing strong, we humanists are tempted to steal the vocabulary of the competition. In the end, such desperation will only make us look foolish. We will talk a lot about spirituality. But we will never really be able to do it with conviction.
If what we want is more poetry, then indeed let us create more poetry and call it that. If what we want is more hugging and dancing, then let us have more hugging and dancing and call it that. If what we want is a stronger sense of community that transcends our individual existence and binds us together in solidarity, then let us work on the bonds of community and call it that. But let us not confuse the development of the human spirit with the experience of peace and serenity that comes from believing that there is a profound harmony between human need and the forces that guide the universe. Our beliefs as humanists and as Humanistic Jews are in strong conflict with this premise of historic spirituality. The pain and suffering of existence cannot be trivialized by claiming that they are simply part of some greater positive whole. And if the universe, with all its vast influence, does not give us peace and serenity but makes us a little bit nervous, that response is very appropriate and very Jewish.