The Army of Emotions
What are we to do with the emotions?
Our world is overrun with emotions. We live in a time of public outrage. Behind the transluscent wall of the internet, a vigilant hoard of self-appointed score keepers await the smallest gaff and the greatest injustice to unleash a wave of hate, disgust, anger, and indignation. And are they wrong? There is much to be indignant about in our world.
When not expressed, it seems that emotion lies suppressed and oppressing under the fearsome hand of depression, after all, as TIME recently reported..
We are awash with emotions.
But we are drowning in them.
What should we do?
Give into them?
Act in spite of them?
The emotions are profoundly important.
In no small part simply because we cannot escape them. To be human is feel— to love, to hate, to want. It seems there is no escaping them, so we may as well figure out what to do with them. Today we'll explore this question through the lens of Mr. Rogers, Saint Macrina the Teacher, and The Song of the Sea.
Saint Macrina - The Teacher
When directed by wisdom, the emotions are our allies in virtue.
Saint Macrina (AD 324-379) was born as the eldest daughter of a Holy Family in Cappodocia shortly after the Diocletian Persecution (303-313), the most devastating persecutions in the early church. She is descended from a family of Saints, and her grandfather was a martyr. Perhaps most famously, she was the older sister of two of the Cappodocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great). They were famous for formulating the orthodox formulation of the Trinity which we use today.
Macrina's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, called her "The Teacher."
Consider this passage from Kevin Corrigan's book The Life of Saint Macrina. :
Macrina was born in 327, then Basil in 329, then Naucratius, followed by Gregory in 331 or later, down to Peter, the youngest child, in 341. Their father died in 340, and there is no doubt from Gregory's account that Macrina, though only twelve years old, was the major pillar of strength for the family at this time. Although Basil himself does not speak of her, Gregory, only four years her junior, calls her his teacher (didaskalos) and tells us that when Peter was born, Macrina personally took his education in hand and became everything for the child: "father, teacher, guide, mother". Her strength of resolve and religious devotion had, in fact, been demonstrated even before the death of her father, after the unexpected death of her fiancé; for against her parents' wishes, something unique in early accounts of saints' lives, she determined to remain unmarried, and never to separate herself from her mother, but to live a life of asceticism. At a very early age, then, she recited the psalms at appropriate times during the day and was not only skilled in the genteel task of spinning, but also insisted upon performing the servile one of preparing bread for her mother "with her own hands". This is the girl who grows up as the partner to her mother's worries, persuades her mother to turn the family home into a monastery, to hold all possessions "in common" and to treat her maids as "sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants", who with her mother founds the convent at Annisa by the Iris (probably in 352) and who gives all her possessions away when her mother dies in 370. And this too is the girl who, according to Gregory's testimony, takes Basil in hand when he comes home from university "monstrously conceited about his skill in rhetoric, contemptuous of every high reputation and exalted beyond the leading lights of the province by his self-importance", ultimately to win him to "the ideal of philosophy".
- Kevin Corrigan, The Life of Saint Macrina
Saint Macrina was a big deal.
Not only did she educate one of the most influential church fathers in the Christian tradition, she also seems to have set the course of Christian monasticism in the East. She is to be taken very seriously.
I love this icon of her, enthroned and surrounded by her disciples.
Macrina and the Emotions:
Lucky for us, one of the main topics Macrina address was the emotions. We have no direct writing from her, but On the Soul and Resurrection, Gregory of Nyssa records a long conversation that he has with Macrina on her deathbed. The dialogue is an homage to Plato's Phaedrus, in which Socrates comforts his student, preparing him for his ultimate death by affirming to him the eternality of the soul. Macrina does a similar thing for Gregory, instead emphasising the assurance of the resurrection given by Jesus.
the dialogue presents macrina as socrates, and Gregory as the student.
So, yeah. As I mentioned, Macrina was kinda a big deal. Lucky for us, one of the topics they discuss most is the emotions. And particularly how to manage the fear of death. This is pretty much what she comes down to ...
1. We have emotions because we have bodies.
“Whatever faculties are proper to the irrational nature are mixed with the intellectual power of our souls. From the animals… is anger, from them is fear, from them all the other qualities … except thinking power, which indeed alone is distinctive of our nature, have (as we have said), in itself the imitation of the divine character.”
- On the Soul and the Resurrection
Macrina argues that because have bodies, and bodies are always needing things (food, sleep, shelter, sex, etc.), we are constantly pulled about by desire, and that emotions emerge from those needs.
SIDE NOTE:I think it's interesting how consonant this is with our contemporary scientific and psychological understanding of emotions.
However, this is not to denigrate the emotions, or the body. Macrina holds that all of creation, including these bodies of ours, flow out of God's lifegiving, loving nature. So, our bodies themselves are signs of God's love. But it's not just that! The emotions have an even deeper meaning...
2. emotions draw us toward God
Macrina believes that our emotions remind us that we are needy creatures, and that ultimately we need God. Being the little needing, eating, wanting, and emoting creatures we are, we are constantly aware of our lack. That lack, Macrina says, is meant to draw us close to God. Every time we desire and are satisfied, be it by food or company, we are reminded that God made us and our souls and bodies find rest in his generous love.“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
We should not hate our emotions and our desires, but see them as invitations to move deeper into God's satisfying love.
3. the emotions help us be virtuous
In the dialogue, Gregory observes the following...We see that virtuous people receive no little assistance toward the good from these faculties (passions). For Daniel’s desire was praiseworthy, and Phineas placated God by his anger. We have learned that the beginning of wisdom is fear, and we have heard from Paul that the end of godly grief is salvation.- On the Soul and the Resurrection.
What Gregory seems to be saying is that everything worth accomplishing, every holy deed, is done through the emotions. He is doing away with the idea of disinterest as the highest form of holiness. The ideal is not to disinterestedly do good, but to have your emotions aligned in such a way that they become the powerful force that helps you to do good. Macrina recognizes that, in many ways, the emotions are a more powerful force than the intellet. Therefore, they must be trained and directed for the purpose of virtue. As C.S. Lewis would put it, we must "Inculcate just sentiments." A big part of our cultivation as people is learning to train and direct our emotions. Macrina uses an metaphor to describe this: the army of emotions.
The army of emotions...If a person uses these emotions according to the right principle, receiving them in himself without falling into their power, he will be like some king who, by using the many hands of his servants for assistance, will easily accomplish his virtuous purpose.- On the Soul and Resurrection.
Like an army, if the emotions are trained, they can accomplish great tasks. But if they lack direction and they lack discipline, they will war within themselves, and destroy their own kingdom.
I love that idea!
I think Macrina presents us with a compelling solution to the problem of emotions. She helps us understand that emotions are good— they are a reminder that we are needy creatures, and that our need is only completely met in God. They draw us toward God as we are constantly aware of our need for him. And finally, when they are trained and directed, they can become the conduit toward great growth and acts of heroism. Song of the Sea
your feelings matter deeply, but they need not control you
Mr. Rogers spent most of his life promoting this message:
Children's emotional lives matter.
He spent years on his show trying to depict the world and mind of children, honoring it, and trying to help children grow in health and character. And important aspect of this work was to help children master their emotions. Mr. Rogers did a great deal of research into childhood development to consider how to help children learn to identify their feelings and deal with them in a healthy way. He then tried to use his show as an educational tool. This song is a good example...
Message behind this song:
- Your feelings are legitimate
- Suppressing emotions will not do away with them.
- You have the ability, agency, and will to overcome them
Pretty deep stuff for a kid's show...
pssst! You've all gotta go watch "Won't You Be My Neighbor." I cried. It's truly amazing and inspiring.
The Song of the Sea
If we attempt to suppress or bury our emotions, they will bury us
The song of the sea is about Sorrow.
This movie is made up of two stories—one mythical, and one ordinary. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it is one story with two threads that weave all the characters together.
The core of the stories is based around an Irish myth. Macha, also known as the owl witch, is the mother of a giant called Mac Lir. Mac Lir experiences a great sorrow, and fills up the whole sea with his tears. Deeply upset by her son's suffering, she takes drastic measures: she turns him into stone. At least then, he will no longer weep.
She becomes obssessed with controlling emotions. She turns nearly all the fairy folk into stone, and begins to bottle all hers up in little jars. As she does this, she too slowly turns into stone.
This story obviously relates to the ordinary world (though, could anything truly be called ordinary in this wondrous movie?) we are presented with in the main plot. A young father mourns the loss— and what appears to be the abandonment— of his wife, and the mother of his two children. His assertive Irish mother comes to put things in order, and attempts to drag him out of his misery. She insists that the children would be better off with her in Dublin. She takes them.
Like Macha, she hates to see her son suffer.
Like macha, she'd rather he was hardened than broken.
Saoirse and Ben do not take well to Dublin, and they go on an adventure home. As they go, they meet many of the fair folk... and Macha herself!
They must convince Macha to feel her emotions or else the whole fairy world will be turned to stone.
Song of the Sea show us that burrying our emotions is not an option.
If we bury sorrow, anger, grief, it will turn us to stone.
We must learn to experience emotion, accepting it as a part of being human.
We must let it wash over us like an ocean wave.
I hope you enjoyed this episode!
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of emotion, sorrow, and the healthy ways we express it, you should join my Patreon where there is a supplementary podcast on Lament in the Hebrew Bible. I did this podcast with my dear friend Macie Lynne Sweet, who is currently a Masters Student at Princetone Theological Seminary. She did a play on the theme of lament in the Old Testament. It is beautiful and moving and helpful.
It will be out later this week.
Please let me know your thoughts and questions, and most of all, I'd love to know...
How do you manage your army of emotions?
See you all next time for Heroes and Antiheroes, a special episode with my brother Nathan.