Difficult Emotions

Emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, or frustration are often described as a negative. Surely, in most circumstances we never wish to be sad, fearful, angry or frustrated. These emotions are, however, part of our human experience. The emotions themselves are neutral, but how we respond to them can have a positive or negative value for us. We can grow in virtue or we can grow in vice depending on how we respond to these emotions. Our response can spur us to a life of holiness modeled on the life of Jesus himself: Jesus was sad (John 11:35); Jesus was (possibly) afraid (John 12:27); Jesus was angry (John 2:13-22); and Jesus was frustrated (Matthew 16:9).

How we respond to any given situation when we are sad, afraid, angry or frustrated could indicate a need for healing; not from the emotions themselves, but from what could lead us to respond without love, faith, or hope. When our mind and heart are intent upon God, and our will loves God above all else, we can with the help of his grace, respond like Jesus to the difficult emotions that arise in our lives.

We can ask ourselves these questions: Is our cognitive and behavioral response to our emotional life, at any given point, headed toward the values of the Kingdom of God (e.g., reconciliation, hope, and justice)? Or do our responses to the difficult emotions tend toward destruction, despair, or injustice? In what ways have we learned to feel and process our uncomfortable feelings in light of the virtues, especially faith, love, and hope? 

In order to answer such questions, we might learn first to acknowledge and accept our uncomfortable emotions. Psychologist Tara Brach often uses the following poem[1] the Guest House by Rumi. It speaks of an attitude of hospitable openness toward whatever might show up in our inner world:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Following Rumi’s suggestion, the difficult emotions could become guides for us. Let us now consider what they might signal to us:

First, sadness often signals a loss or an unmet expectation. Evagrius, the fourth century spiritual psychologist writes that sadness “tends to come up at times because of deprivations of one’s desires.”[2] Often the more significant the loss, or the more we expected something to happen a certain way just to discover it happens another way, the greater the sadness. Sometimes sadness arises when our will is tied down and thus unable to reach our aspirations, as when the rich young man of the Gospel goes away sad (Matthew 19:22). We can ask ourselves when we are sad: what could be the root attachment causing the sadness? How might we start to walk the path to freedom from such an attachment to desires or expectations? In what way could that attachment be blocking us from desiring God with more of our strength?

Second, anger tells us that our boundaries have been crossed, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Perhaps we perceive an injustice against us or against someone or something we care about. Anger can act like fuel; and that fuel can be used for destructive or constructive purposes. Rather than harboring resentment or seeking revenge, when angry we can ask ourselves: how can I work for a more just world?

Third, fear signals that we might be unsafe. It can avert us to some danger of possible harm to ourselves, someone close to us, or our property. When afraid, we can ask ourselves what options we have to increase our security and how we can respond wisely and in a timely manner to the perceived danger. If the danger is not imminent, remember that “Do not be afraid” or “fear not” is one of the most repeated phrases in the Bible, and so fear can be an invitation to place greater trust in God. 

Fourth, frustration indicates that we have experienced something that is beyond our control. Is it really beyond our control? What could I change within myself? Terese of Lisieux used to expect to be interrupted by other sisters and so she would decide ahead of time that she would patiently help them at any time, even though she herself had pressing duties. In this way, she preemptively averted becoming frustrated with what otherwise would have been experienced as interruptions. 

Augustine writes “the citizens of the holy city of God, who live according to God in the pilgrimage of this life, both fear and desire, and grieve and rejoice. Because their love is rightly placed, all these affections of theirs are right. They fear eternal punishment, they desire eternal life; they grieve because they themselves groan within themselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of their body…In like manner they fear to sin, they desire to persevere; they grieve in sin, they rejoice in good works.”[3]

Augustine’s own life could shed some light on the skills of emotional regulation and virtuous response, in how he describes the various painful emotions of grief when he experienced the death of his mother, Monica, in book IX of the Confessions:

  1. He names the feeling and the intensity of the feeling: “I closed her eyes; and there flowed a great sadness into my heart.” Naming our emotions and describing the intensity is a necessary step in knowing ourselves in order to embrace ourselves at that moment. Naming the emotion allows us to fully feel an emotion. 
  2. He objectively describes the experienced reality corresponding to the feeling and then lives it with gratitude: “she had not died miserably nor had she died eternally.” Augustine recognizes consolations in the middle of his grief and therefore can be grateful for them. It may take some work, but we could find gratitude in most human experiences. Br. David-Steindl-Rast says: “You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence or domestic violence or sickness, things like that. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful. But in every moment, you can be grateful. For instance, the opportunity to learn something from a very difficult experience — what to grow by it, or even to protest, to stand up and take a stand — that is a wonderful gift in a situation in which things are not the way they ought to be. So opportunity is really the key when people ask, Can you be grateful for everything? — no, not for everything, but [you can be grateful] in every moment.”[4]
  3. Augustine asks God for healing: “I spent the whole day sad within myself, asking you, as I could, with my mind perturbed, to heal my pain.” Praying for healing during such vulnerability takes humility to recognize our dependence before God. In such a prayer we can openly and authentically acknowledge before God our specific needs and limitations, and in this way recognize that we are not alone. 
  4. Augustine reviews her life looking for elements of goodness: “Little by little, I returned in my thoughts, to remember the life of your servant and her conversion to you.” Reviewing the past as well as the context surrounding a painful situation can provide us elements to reframe a difficult situation in light of God’s providence. 
  5. Augustine allows himself to cry: “And I allowed my tears, which had been contained, to flow freely as much as they wished.” The pioneering PTSD researcher and medical doctor Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma[5] highlights the experience of extreme disconnection from the body of many people and the need we all have to become more aware of who we are in our bodies. He examines the evidence and the importance for integrating the body in healing.

These five elements which Augustine models for us are not meant to be exhaustive of all the elements needed for us to live virtuously when we experience difficult emotions, nor is Augustine presented here as the paragon of emotional intelligence. However, these five elements are meant to be an aid for us to consider in how we manage not just sadness but the other emotions as well. Joseph Grabau writes that “with the death of his mother, St. Monica, at the threshold of emotion fixed between prayer and thought: engaging both Christian lament and critical self-reflection, Augustine guides his soul to a place of prayer, emotional release in submission before God, and liturgical remembrance with his community of loved ones.”[6]

[1] SELECTED POEMS by Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks (Penguin Classics, 2004).

[2] Praktikos 10,CS 4:17

[3] City of God XIV.9

[4] https://onbeing.org/programs/david-steindl-rast-how-to-be-grateful-in-every-moment/

[5] Maria Popova provides an excellent summary and review here: https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/06/20/the-body-keeps-the-score-van-der-kolk/

[6] Grabau, Joseph. ‘To grieve with a sorrow that will let itself be assuaged’ (s. 172.3): Purifying Emotion in Augustine of Hippo’s s. 172-173 and s. 396. 2020-10; 45th International Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference (PMR), Date: 2020/10/16 – 2020/10/18, Location: Villanova University (virtual)

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