A Heart of Flesh6:00:00 AMJonah Soucy
Recently, I had the chance to watch the movie “The Giver”. For those unfamiliar, the movie takes place in a dystopian future where feelings are suppressed. Emotional expression is pretty much forbidden, and every morning the citizens are forced to take injections which keep their feelings in check. As a result, most of the characters in the show are completely blind to the world of values. Babies are put to death if they don’t show strong potential for building up society, and when they do they are placed with a set of parents with no biological relationship to avoid attachment. Because of their fear of feeling too deeply, the society has decided to cut the realm of feelings out completely. Though this is clearly a scenario taken to the extreme to show a point, it does show a trend in our thought; maybe if we were to cut out emotions from our lives, we could escape the pain that they often bring with them.
Dietrich von Hildebrand keenly observed that the affections in man “have been more or less under a cloud throughout the entire course of the history of philosophy.” (1) This is especially true of the role of the heart in the spiritual life. There are many reasons for this trend. We hear often phrases like “your emotions can’t be trusted”, or we throw the word “just” in front of them as if to say, “it’s just how you’re feeling.” Now granted, there are some strong reasons that many have this tendency to be wary of the emotions. For one thing, the affections can and often do overpower our minds and lead us down a path which leads to harm. Our lack of freedom over them can often lead us to throw up walls in our hearts, hoping to shut them off completely. Many philosophers have posited that emotions are nothing but a biological process involving hormones, and as such should be disregarded. All of these are legitimate concerns which put forth a negative view of the emotional realm. They demand an answer. On the other end of the spectrum, we have sentimentalists who live their lives waiting for the next “emotional high”. They turn their affections into idols.We need to avoid both of these extremes and put emotions in their proper place.
In my last post, I made an argument for the objective goodness of beauty and how to better encounter it in our lives. In the all-important encounter with beauty, our emotions play the decisive role of a “response.” Emotions are a lens by which we encounter the realm of value around us. We see something good in the world and we feel that goodness. Likewise, when we see a great injustice being committed, we often have a feeling of anger or disappointment. This is a natural part of our humanity, a great gift that we’re able to take part in. Far too often we fail to engage it. We see the suffering on the news and the media, and we put up walls. We desensitize ourselves to brutality and violence and suffering. Why? Because it’s easier. It’s easier to have a stony heart then a heart of flesh. But at what cost?
When we stop caring about our suffering human brothers and sisters there is a disconnect between us and reality. There are situations which we come across which demand an affective response from us. Gratitude for those who have taken care of us, righteous indignation when we see some heinous crime, affection towards the beloved: these are all situations in which our affections play a crucial and important role in our experience of life. If we lose them, we are losing part of what it means to be human.
The pain of a heartbreak or losing a loved one is terrible, but to desire to cut out those emotions completely does a serious injustice to the person they are about. Feelings are meant to be felt. To seek to eradicate them from our lives is a serious crime, a self-mutilation of the center of our being. Apathy is a terrible enemy to our hearts. Walking the line between not-feeling and sentimentalism is at times difficult but it is worth it. “Affectivity can never be too intense as long as the cooperation of heart, will, and intellect willed by God is not disturbed.” (2) Without falling into sentimentalism, may we always allow ourselves to be moved, and moved deeply.
“And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.”
- Hildebrand, The Heart p. 1
- Hildebrand, The Heart p. 54