We live in a complex universe full of truths to be discovered, mysteries to be pondered, roads to be traveled, and most importantly people to be known. Like the intricacy and ambiguity of a snowflake, the human heart is both incomprehensible and beautiful. Yet, it seems throughout the dramatic course of human history and human experiences, we have come to misunderstand and misrepresent important qualities of not only the universe, but of ourselves and of our hearts.
A commonly misperceived aspect of humanity is none other than the core of the human person, the heart. I am not referring to the blood pumping organ but the wellspring from which our emotions and feelings flow.
Feelings are a mystifying human experience which have plagued the stoic, tormented the artist, and are crucial to the lover. Feelings are essential to the human experience of life. The only way to experience happiness, joy, enthusiasm, or sorrow is to feel them. They can not simply be thought or willed,they must first be felt. It is the intellect and reason which then determine whether or not we should act upon our feelings.
Dietrich von Hildebrand possessed a remarkable understanding of the human heart and the affective sphere which emanates from it.
“Happiness becomes a word without meaning when we sever it from feeling, the only form of experience in which it can be consciously lived” (pg.4).
In their most genuine form emotions can be wondrous and are essential to the flourishing of our personhood and our relationship with the world of values. Our desire to feel is part of our human nature. Dietrich von Hildebrand in his work The Heart claims that feelings in the highest sense are meant to be a response to the value of an object, experience, or person. The object of one’s feelings gives meaning to their emotions. Hildebrand writes, “Only when we know what a man is enthusiastic about, do the nature of this enthusiasm and especially its raison d’etre (reason for being) reveal themselves”(pg. 6).
I would venture to say that our society is very much preoccupied with feelings apart from their objects. A wise man, a.k.a my father, once said, “truths do not disappear, only people’s understandings of them.” It seems Hildebrand’s understanding of human affectivity has been forgotten or to be more accurate, has gone unheeded by modern man.
Often we speak about the “Pursuit of Happiness”, and even more often we complain about not having happiness. The desire for happiness has led many to search for it in the wrong places and by the wrong means. Our progressive mindset and technological age has not helped to balance man’s infatuation with his feelings. When we are bored we seek instant gratification, instant happiness. Our food, transportation, communication, and internet are fast or else we are not happy. What has happened to patience? I cannot sit and appreciate a blog if it takes me more than a minute to read.
There is a clear pattern present within our society’s flawed thinking process. Due to our extreme infatuation with how we feel the only object we respond to is our self. We have become “I” oriented. We can justify any action if it is an attempt to make ourselves happy. We live for happiness alone or in other words we live for ourselves alone. Am I saying it is selfish to desire happiness? No, the problem lies in placing the feeling of delight above the object of our delight. When our focus is primarily on the feeling and we ignore the object, the feeling becomes hollow and meaningless. The result is a falsification of the very nature of affectivity. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains this falsification as such:
“In detaching them from their objects, in overlooking their response-character, one is no longer confronted with those affective realities which really play a great and decisive role in the sphere of morality, such as contrition, love, the act of forgiveness, but one deals rather with mere 'feelings' deprived of all meaning, a kind of gesticulation in a vacuum” (pg.8).
We, as a society, have become so self-absorbed and dependent on feeling happy that we have become numb to the world of values, to the objects which ought to move us deeply. A clear and blunt example of our value blindness are the accidents which occur during chaotic Black Friday shopping. Have we become so indifferent to the value which adheres in the dignity of man that we will trample over his existence in a mad rush to buy the latest toys? Unfortunately, yes.
Ultimately, we can not afford to dismiss the objects, subjects, or experiences of our feelings. They are our loved ones, the births of our children, the deaths of our friends. A life lived solely for the feeling of happiness is bound to be met with disappointment and left unsatisfied. However, when we experience feelings as a response to an object, our eyes are opened to a world of meaningful emotions, relationships, and true happiness.
Quotes: The Heart, Dietrich von Hildebrand (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1965) Pages 4-8.Image 1