How to Trust Your Feelings

Robert Royal
Robert Royal is a Catholic author and the president of the Faith & Reason Institute based in Washington, D.C. Royal received his BA and MA from Brown University and his PhD from The Catholic University of America. He has taught at Brown University, Rhode Island College, and The Catholic University of America. From 1980 to 1982 he was editor-in-chief of Prospect magazine in Princeton, New Jersey. From 1986 to 1999 he served as vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, along with president George Weigel from 1989 to 1996.

On a distant planet in a time now far, far away, I came home from Florence (Italy), where I’d been studying Dante, paleography, and other subjects obviously central to modern civilization. My family immediately took me to see the biggest thing then happening in American culture, the very first Star Wars film. Even if you hadn’t spent the weeks previous cloistered with the Middle Ages, it was simply a breathtaking experience.

“Trust your feelings, Luke,” Obi-wan Kenobe (Alec Guinness, a Catholic convert in real life, in his most Catholic role) famously urged young Luke Skywalker. It was a kind of monasticism, that Jedi training. And not only for medievalists – because it drew attention to something quite different than the film’s portrayal of the inhuman vastness of outer space and the clash of massive technological weaponry. Something we all sense (perhaps non-believers as much as anyone) that’s missing from modern societies: the authentically and fully human, slowly brought to birth by sound teaching and self-discipline.

But I kept waiting for Luke to ask the key questions, “Which feelings, Obi-Wan?” and how?

Feelings can be important, because they often tell us something about ourselves and/or the world. Emotions arise in a human person, which is to say, in a being made in the image and likeness of God. And as the film was suggesting in its confused way, feelings are part of what it means to be a person in a world either entirely bereft of persons (outer space) or too much in the grip of machines – and the will to power they express.

But feelings can also be a delusion. The whole modern therapeutic industry is built on that truth. A person suffering from depression or anxiety – or even the usual troubling emotions – is never just told to trust those feelings. It may be important to experience them as a way to understand their causes and reach a cure. But feelings as such need something else, a standard outside of them, to tell us precisely how and how much to trust them – or not.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s discourse: the ancient notion of rational emotions. Only a misanthrope doesn’t feel joy when a baby is born – or sorrow when a friend or relative dies. These are reactions that, rationally considered, are part of what it means to be human.

There are also emotions that alienate us from ourselves, make us less, not more human. Dante, for example, in the famous story of Paolo and Francesca – adulterous lovers – shows in Inferno V what happens to people “who made their reason subject to desire”: The hellish cyclone that can never rest, snatches the spirits up in its driving wind, and whisks them about and beats and buffets them.

And when they fall before the ruined slope ah then the shrieking, the laments, the cries!  Then they hurled curses at the power of God. . . . And as a flock of starlings winter-beaten, founder upon their wings in widening turns, so did that whirlwind whip those evil souls.  Flinging them here and there and up and down nor were they ever comforted by hope – no hope for rest, or even lesser pain.

Souls in the afterlife – Purgatory excepted – are what they once were, forever. So here we have things in their purity: what it means to separate human emotion and human reason. It’s a relentless storm. The rest of Hell is basically a variation on that theme. Which, of course, is a lot like the world we live in now.

But it’s wrong to dismiss feelings entirely – as some of us are tempted to do – just because they’ve been the source of much mischief, especially via the sexual revolution. Because desire – rational desire – is crucial to our earthly and spiritual lives. And it’s not enough merely for emotions to be measured from outside, they need to be properly formed and directed on the inside. And here’s the ultimate test: When Dante himself finally reaches the Beatific Vision, it’s because desire for God, a rational love, has taken him up to the highest height – where he is frustrated because, in the end, we need something greater than our desire. We need grace: “my wings were not meant for such a flight/ Except that then my mind was struck by lightning/ Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.”

Meanwhile, long before that consummation, there’s daily life in this world, where emotions come and go, relentlessly. Managing them is hard enough in normal times. Friends in business, government, even the military say that they now have to deal with millennials in new ways – that whole programs have been developed for how to handle people who think emotions rule.

This is hardly a new problem, but the old – and only – solution will generate tempests of its own. It’s already there in that wise old pagan Aristotle and was taken up later by wise and holy Christian thinkers like Aquinas. It’s the need to train emotions, which may sound totalitarian today. But it’s either bring people up, first in families and schools, to have rational emotions, which is to say emotions in harmony with reality, the fullness of a human life. The alternative is to learn to live with psychological turmoil – and family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and social chaos. And endless complaints of microaggressions and “unsafe” spaces.

As Aristotle saw it:

moral virtue. . .is concerned with emotions and actions. . .one can be frightened or bold, feel desire or anger or pity, and experience pleasure and pain in general, either too much or too little, and in both cases wrongly; whereas to feel these feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount – and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue.

It’s only after others, starting with parents and family, have helped you to see things truly and you have made serious efforts on your own to be formed by perennial wisdom that you know how and when and why to “trust your feelings.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books