The title is an eye-catching quote from a talk given by Richard Rohr at a conference, New Thinking for a New Era, given with Laurence Freeman in Chicago, February 2013. Rohr is describing the way feelings take charge of our lives and make us prisoners of depression, anxiety, fear and anger. When we are stuck like this we live out of the false self, as Merton called it, not the true self. The tyranny of feelings is especially to be seen in the dualistic nature of our political life, where fear and anger are the primary movers and our nation is polarized. For all our educational and scientific sophistication as a nation we still react with little awareness of how our emotions impact our thinking processes – so much for the power of reason! Emotion trumps reason every time. (But I should add that devious political operatives are fully aware how voters may be manipulated by appeals to unworthy emotions).
What does a mature approach to our feelings look like? We are aware of our feelings and can discriminate between those which come from genuine causes and those from illusions. We then are able to express them appropriately and to let go the illusory ones. When we deal with our feelings appropriately we are much better able to communicate with others and not let things get out of hand. I have heard several commentators on the Washington scene remark that the increasing alienation between left and right dates from the time when legislators were discouraged from bringing their spouses to the capital city, so little socialization is now done. It is commonly known that women are better at communication and socialization than men (especially lawyers) who tend more towards competition and adversarial relationships – hence the deadlock in Washington.
The modern counseling practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy bears out the contention that our thinking (including our values and beliefs) should be in charge of our feelings, and not the other way around. I highly recommend David Burns book on CBT, “Feeling Good”, which is so much better than its title.
The New Testament portrays Christians in charge of their feelings and Christians who are captive to them. Occasionally the Biblical writers themselves allowed feelings to get the better of faith, as, for example, when the author of John’s Gospel allowed the conflict with Judaism in the early Church to influence some of his attitudes to “the Jews”. Even the best of Christians may fall prey to adversarial bitterness to justify their own position. We are all human. The Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of the turn-around that is possible because of God’s mercy. I love the way in Caravaggio’s painting the Apostle’s world is turned upside down when he falls from his horse!
What are we to do about this inclination of the ego to defend its own positions with an appeal to emotion? In the same talk Richard Rohr quotes the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, saying that contemplation is the only way to move beyond the confines of the ego’s false self. Contemplation brings our attention to God and away from our self. Meditation is a handmaid of contemplation because it diverts attention from the self-justifying obsessions of the ego. In meditation we are set the lowly task of repeating our mantra over and over again. This may seem banal to the ego, but it proves to be the ego’s undoing, for “one little word shall fell him”, to borrow from Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”. There are other things in life that bring us to the realization of our true self in God, like experiences of great suffering and great love, but this state of awareness may also be described as contemplation, as these experiences leave us in awe of the grace of God.