Trusting Feelings: Within Reason

Anger is bad, right?

Yes, sort of, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Emotions, anger included, are good; in the sense that they’re part of being human. They’re “…the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind….” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1764)

In another sense, emotions aren’t good or bad by themselves. What matters is what we decide to do about them. (Catechism, 17621770)

Cracked Mirrors and Yeats

My wife gave me a familiar ‘did you really say that?’ look last year, when I said I didn’t understand why so many folks are upset about current events.

She had reason on her side: as usual. I’m pretty much the opposite of phlegmatic.

But I don’t see much point in heeding cracked mirrors, or taking my cue from Yeats:

“…The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott….”
(“The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson (1842))

“…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand….”
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats (1920))

Yeats, and quite a few other folks, were getting over the Great War. Since then we’ve survived another global war, McCarthyism, leisure suits, and disco. I’m not enjoying my country’s 2016 presidential election, but I’m pretty sure we’ll survive that, too.

Getting and staying angry about the nonsense getting flung by candidates, their supporters, and assorted pundits, would be a very bad idea.

High Stakes

Our Lord raised the stakes in Matthew 5:2026.

15 16 ‘You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”

17 But I say to you, whoever is angry 18 with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
(Matthew 5:2122)

Controlling my actions is a good idea. So is controlling what happens inside, in my heart. (Matthew 15:1819)

Raqa,” or “reqa,” probably meant something like “imbecile,” or “blockhead” in Aramaic. Either way, it’s offensive: the sort of insult that could lead to murder.

I’m pretty sure that Matthew 5:22 tells us that verbal abuse is a bad idea, and I shouldn’t do it. The other person might get angry enough to hurt me.

Worse, venting my feelings could become a bad habit: which probably involves my basal ganglia, and certainly gets harder to change as I get older.

Bottom line — How I treat others matters. So does what I keep in my mind and heart.

Definitions, Emotions, and Getting a Grip

The brain’s neurocircuitry handles emotions, which is why hypothalamic disease plays hob with our feelings.

Time for definitions — In English, a “passion” is a strong emotion; a state of strong sexual desire, or love; or boundless enthusiasm. (

In Catholic writing, “passion” means something closer to “feelings.” These emotions push us toward acting or not acting about something we feel or imagine is good or evil. (Catechism, 1763)

ANGER: An emotion which is not in itself wrong, but which, when it is not controlled by reason or hardens into resentment and hate, becomes one of the seven capital sins. Christ taught that anger is an offense against the fifth commandment (1765, 1866, 2262).”

PASSIONS, MORAL: The emotions or dispositions which incline us to good or evil actions, such as love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sadness, and anger (1763).”
(Catechism, Glossary)

The antics of loudly-religious folks notwithstanding, faith and reason get along fine. (Catechism, 156159)

Getting Angry, Staying Angry

Getting back to Tennyson, Yeats, and angst; I care about what’s going on — and I trust my feelings: within reason.

I think that’s partly because living with undiagnosed depression and something on the autism spectrum for decades taught me that my emotions are unreliable guides.

Having a good, or bad, feeling about something may mean that it’s good or evil — or not. That’s why I should think before responding. (Catechism, 17651770)

Ideally, my emotions would line up with my reason.

“…since the sensitive appetite can obey reason, as stated above (Question [17], Article [7]), it belongs to the perfection of moral or human good, that the passions themselves also should be controlled by reason….”
(“The Summa Theologica,” First Part of the Second Part | Question: 24 | Article: 3, St. Thomas Aquinas)
(translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947)

I’m not all that close to “the perfection of moral or human good” — but I’m working on it.

I trust my feelings to let me know that something may be important. After that, it’s up to my reason to decide what’s happening and what — if anything — I should do.

Reason is part of being human, too. But because we have free will, thinking is an option: not a requirement. My experience has been that I’m better off if I think before I act. (Catechism, 1730, 1778, 1804, 2339)

I don’t think that feeling angry about some injustice is wrong. I’d be concerned if I didn’t feel something like that.

Deliberately staying angry, letting that emotional impulse turn into hate or despair: that would be wrong. (Catechism, 1501, 2091)

The flip side of despair is presumption, and that’s another topic. (Catechism, 2092)

Doing What’s Right

Feeling angry isn’t good or bad by itself.

Sometimes it just happens.

Hanging on to anger, letting it build into a desire to harm or kill someone else: that’s where it becomes a sin. (Catechism, 17621775, 23022303)

Like it says in Romans 12:19: “… ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ ” And that’s yet another topic.

Then there’s the notion that God has anger management issues. More topics.

Doing what’s right is easier our emotions are in sync with our reason: but “…conscience is a law of the mind….” We’ve got brains, and are expected to think. (Catechism, 17621775, 1776)

Not-entirely-unrelated posts:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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