I am not usually what someone might consider a mushy, emotional type. I have my deep sense of passion and I do feel deeply, but I have an aversion to emotional expressions. Call it the traumas of being an emotionally sensitive young boy or call it the instinct to survive and push forward through painful life circumstances, but it is a rare day when I let someone see me deeply emotional. I don’t mind people knowing that I do I feel, knowing that I do bleed, knowing that I do struggle, but I won’t let you see it in my face and in my voice.
However, there is a deeper, philosophical underpinning to my feelings about feelings. However, it isn’t rooted in some supposedly logical aversion to feeling. I think that emotions, even deep emotions, can be perfectly “rational” in many situations. As I am studying Stoicism for my work on the Apostle Paul, I have found my views on emotions make me no Stoic. While certainly strong emotions can mislead us to do some foolish, irrational, wrong, or even sometimes evil things, they are deeply important in motivating us, directing us, and even stirring up creativity within us. Stoics shun the strong emotions they call the passions that misleading reasoning; I say that the battle to learn to rightly direct one’s emotions, which entails standing on the margins between contained feelings and passion, is an education itself that one should not overlook or besmirch.
Rather, my philosophical underpinning of emotions asks this question: what is the value of this emotion? Not in trying to figure out if it serves some pre-formed “logical” purpose, but rather what is the value that this emotion compelled me towards and is this value something really should value? Certainly, this is a very reflective attitude you can’t really have in the heat of the moment often times, but it is a way that forms my understanding of emotions and feelings.
Granted there are some values to emotions and their expression that go beyond what they are immediately expressions for. Expressing emotions allow other people to know where you are personally in those moments. They allow people to bond, to form connections. Emotions are as much social as they are personal. People will laugh a lot more at something funny if they are around people, whereas they are not as prone to laugh if the same funny thing happens while they are in private. But past this social role, the question is this: what is the value of emotions?
The question came to my mind as I heard a story from a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. She told a story of how she had lost a child of hers, with pain in her eyes. But in the midst of the pain, she shared news of how she welcomed a new baby into her life, but it was going to be hard to move forward. As I saw a mixture of pain and joy in her eyes, I wanted to hug her that I am happy for her, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to do so. But that story she shared hit me, even in my usually stolid demeanor.
So, why? Why is our brokenness important? What is the value of all the emotions that come with our brokenness? What is the value that comes in lingering suffering, pain, loneliness, etc.? Shouldn’t life be pain-free? Shouldn’t life be full of joy? Isn’t it better that when something bad happens, we get up, deal with what needs to be dealt with, and then move back to joy? What value is there in brokenness?
Now the answer I have worked myself towards is not a valorization of suffering. Suffering is not something we should pursue. We shouldn’t seek it out and play it up. I do have many concerns about how the language of “brokenness” can reinforce this very attitude: that I need to be broken. Similarly, it can reinforce an attitude of victimization in the implicit passivity of being broken. Alternatively, it can make people who haven’t deeply suffered exaggerate the nature of their pains. So in speak of the value of brokenness, there are real qualification and limits to this answer.
The value of brokenness is this: it can uncover the veil from our eyes the fantasies we have chosen to believe about ourselves, about others, about the world.
As human beings, we are prone to pursue what we enjoy and to imagine this. We deal with and cope with many of the struggles in such a way so that we can get back to the enjoying and imagining. To be human means to desire, to want, to crave, to enjoy. And despite the warnings the New Testament gives about lusts, which is more about unrestrained desire (closer to the Stoic sense of the passions) rather than desire itself, this is a good thing about us: to play, to love, to eat, to drink, to learn, to have sex, to accomplish, to laugh: all of these are good things when done well.
But, the pull of desire has an epistemic curse attached to it. We are easily lead to believe narratives of hope that sound plausible if they meanwhile emotionally satisfy us. This is true both in our desires and our immediate response to our aversions: if some narrative provides an ending we want, we are more inclined to believe it if it only sounds plausible. But plausibility is not the same as a probability. To believe something that seems plausible to our minds is sometimes to believe something that is unlikely. Our status of desiring creatures had made us susceptible to the hypnotic hope and seductive suggestion of the pleasing, plausible possibility.
By contrast, if some narrative seems to go against the happy ending we want, we can demand a lot more proof and evidence or even become utterly skeptical and unmoved by anything that favors any such narrative.
The net effect of this is that we are prone to believe pleasing falsehoods over painful truths. This is all the more powerful in the narrative buffet of technological post-modernity, where we are exposed to a litany of narratives through mass and social media, many of which can be made to sound plausible and can appeal to our desires. The phenomenon of “fake news” is the power of the pleasing, plausible possibility in technological post-modernity. So, we become even more solidified in our fantasies as they are reinforced
However, occasionally, the epistemic bias of being a desiring human gets turned off. For reasons I will make clear in a moment, I call this the epistemology of suffering. There are occasional points for some people where our epistemic bias is against what we desire and want, where we don’t believe we get what w want. When it happens, it may look like depression and desperation because these
This epistemic mode emerges out of the context of suffering, but of a particular sort. Not of suffering due to self-inflicting loathing. Not a suffering due to untreated mental illness. These are sufferings that should be treated. But it is a suffering of broken hopes and dreams, of life failing to meet the expectations we had hoped it would be. It is a suffering born out of pain that we don’t deserve that challenge all the meaning structures built from the materials of desire.
This deep challenge to meaning is commonly associated with the idea of psychological trauma, where life events throw out something that
I lack the fullest ability to express what exactly it is I am referring to, but it is the state of mind where a person experiences a prolonged sense of suffering born out of loss and pain such that the epistemic bias of desire is countered by a cognitive openness and recognition that pain does exist, it does occur, it will happen, and it can sometimes overwhelm. In this place, many of the pleasing, plausible possibilities that we have learned to believe no longer sound so plausible or possible. It isn’t that one rejects these possibilities and desires as bad or wrong, but rather there is the refusal to accept the narratives that have told us how life will find that happiness, that peace, that joy.
The value of brokenness is that it takes the veils from our eyes from the hypnotic seductions we have fallen prey to. It doesn’t necessarily provide us the truth, but it
Read then the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 in mind as you see him talk about his own fear and trembling as expressions of his own utter weakness and brokenness:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of
power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.1