When Your Feelings Are Wrong

Anthony Esolen

By Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“If I have to choose between my feelings or experiences and the Bible,” I heard someone say recently, “it’s impossible for me to choose the Bible.”

Well, people lie about their feelings all the time, to others and even to themselves. Very often, “He offended me” means “I was looking for a way to hurt him, and he handed me this delightful opportunity.” But let’s grant that the speaker is sincere.

A moment’s thought will suffice to show that what this person says cannot be true. Of course we can choose to act against our emotions, and it is a mark of maturity to recognize that often we are duty-bound to do so. The soldier in the line of terrible gunfire wants to run away, but he holds his ground because his duty demands it. A lawyer is called on to defend a miserable human being, and so he does his best to keep his feelings away from his defense. A woman married to a difficult and ungrateful man discovers one day that her old feelings for him have withered away, or so it seems, and she knows, or so it seems, that she would be happy if she divorced him and married a gentle and lonely man she loves. But she says, “I made a vow, and that is the end of it,” and she does not let on to anyone what she feels, lest it should hurt either the man or weaken her resolution.

But let us grant that “choosing the Bible” means more than “choosing to act according to the Scripture in this particular regard,” which in our time will usually be sexual, as in other times it would be proprietary; for Satan is a huckster in the Vanity Fair of the world, and he promotes the fashions of the day. Let us suppose then that “choosing the Bible” means “accepting the view of man and the world that the Bible encourages or demands.” That involves us in a real difficulty, then, because turning to the Bible—or, for our purposes, the teachings of the Church—would require a turning-about in the mind and heart, a real conversion, so that nothing you accepted as true and good before can merely be passed along after without coming under the judgment of the faith.

Still, this is no impossibility, as the experiences of countless converts attest. Nor are we talking about a practiced setting of the jaw, a stoical determination to accept in the mind what you do not feel in the heart. Converts tell us the reverse: that when you begin to accept one truth that makes the settled earth tremble beneath your feet, your feelings often follow in a continuing and often surprising story of truth illuminating truth and love kindling love.

We need to insist, with C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, that a truly human education is for the heart and the imagination as well as the brain, and that the ancients in every great civilization—China, India, Japan, Greece, Rome, and so on—were correct to maintain that our feelings should conform to the objective value of what we are considering. In other words, we ought to have the right feelings in a right order and to a right degree. Our feelings (moral and aesthetic), no less than our deeds, come under moral judgment.

Someone is standing before Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of the young David and sniggers at his nakedness. It is no excuse for him to say that contempt is what he feels. His feeling is the very thing under judgment: there is something wrong with it. He should not have that feeling; his response should be otherwise. 

The younger son in the parable anticipates his father’s death by demanding his half of the inheritance. It is no excuse for him to say that he simply has no feeling of gratitude or filial piety. His failure is the very thing under judgment: he should feel grateful to his father. Lewis said that he found the company of children to be disagreeable, but he understood that his feeling was objectively wrong because children unless they are misbehaving, lay a rightful claim to our good cheer and affection. He knew that his feeling was a sign of something wrong with him.

“But love,” says someone, “is always good, and you can’t will to love. The feeling is there, or it isn’t. If it is, you should follow it.” This is the morality of a sentimentalist or a spoiled child. “Love is the weight that draws me,” says St. Augustine, meaning that love—that is, a powerful desire—leads us along our way, for good or for ill. Dante says the same thing, that love, considered in its general sense as desire, is the seedbed for every good deed we do, and for every wicked deed. It is good for a mother to love her son, but mothers have loved their sons to their destruction, as Lewis suggests in one of the episodes in The Great Divorce. It is good for a man to love intellectual endeavor, but you can do so while losing charity and betraying the truth; it’s a constant threat to the academic, and Lewis shows that also.

Now, if we are right to judge the feelings, we imply that they are either owing to the frailty of our fallen nature, and so are not absolutely necessary, or that they are partly in our own determination, and so are not personally necessary. If we step away from whatever emotional urgency is pressing upon us and consider the matter generally, we will notice that we are always both choosing and feeling; we choose according to what we feel, but we also feel according to what we have chosen. We do not experience feelings as merely given. How could St. Francis have run back to the leper that repelled him, to embrace him and give him a kiss? We are always working both from and upon our feelings. We kindle and we dampen; we let loose and we restrain; we direct the passions here or there; we attend to this and set that aside; we arrange in one order rather than another. 

Lewis says that, in our time, it is more needful to irrigate deserts than to cut down jungles. Our chests are missing, and all that is left is a clever hypertrophied brain that finds ways to attain what the belly wants, and reasons to justify it. Easy talk about our professed feelings weighs in the balance for what Lewis says because the glib goes merrily along with the superficial, while people of strong feeling are often of few words, precisely because words fail them, as they must. 

But if we really felt the breathtaking beauty and mystery of the conjugal act, whereby an immortal soul can come into being, we would feel as contemptible all talk of it as merely recreational or mechanical or even sentimental. Or if we really felt the beauty and mystery of the human person, we would feel as contemptible all reductions for treating that person as if he were merely a machine, an animal, a consumer, a member of this or that race, or a thing to hate because it does or says or thinks the wrong things. For that person, Christ died upon the Cross, and perhaps God’s love for him exceeds his love for you—you dare not deny the possibility.

To know that you are a sinner is to know that your feelings are not right. Then we must pray, “Teach us, Lord, to love what you love, and as you love,” and may He stab us in the heart to prod us on when we do not.