Of late I’ve been thinking about feelings. In particular, how easy it is to over-identify with one’s feelings. In other words, how easy it is to confuse one’s self with one’s feelings. I’ve been trying to remind myself that I have feelings (as opposed to my feelings having me) as a way to perhaps witness and experience them without completely identifying with them.
This seemingly pedestrian practice has proved rather helpful when it comes to questions of neighbor love. I don’t know about you, but there are many neighbors who drive me crazy feeling-wise: the pitch of their voice; the gait of their walk; their aloofness; insensitivity; facial expressions; eating habits; clothing; taste in music; etc. Yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I have felt profound dislike, irritation, and even anger at such seemingly small habits as speaking inaudibly or kneeling at Mass while everyone else is standing (or vice versa). I understand the repulsion felt by Therese of Lisieux at the nun behind her who clacked her teeth incessantly during choir. If I can manage to conjure these negative emotions over such petty happenings, you can imagine my affective state when it comes to those with whom I disagree politically or theologically.
My recent practice of attempting to not identify my very self with my feelings has brought about the relieving realization that having such petty emotional reactions does not mean that I myself am necessarily petty. If I can find enough space (or, more truthfully stated, be given such space through grace) to witness these feelings without either completely identifying with them, or, and this is important, reacting to them or acting on them, I have at least a fighting chance of not only approaching the other with an attitude of openness and friendship, but with also finding compassion for these petty aspects of myself.
Thus this is not a way of trying to remove my ultimate responsibility for such feelings or to cut off any identification whatsoever with my pettiness. Rather, this practice is an attempt to love my neighbor as myself – that is, to find compassion for my own humanity (revealed in both the pettiness and limitedness of my feelings) and thus to more compassionately identify with and recognize the humanity of my sisters and brothers.
Further, accepting such feelings as part of human nature allows me to see with greater clarity how it is that loving my neighbor is not entirely connected to my feelings about them. My feelings – positive or negative – come and go, they are not always rational, they are often based on past associations of which I’m not even always conscious, and as much as they do not define who I am, they most certainly do not define my neighbor. In other words, love of neighbor may or may not be accompanied by the “appropriate” feelings, but it is not those feelings itself.
Instead, love of neighbor shows itself in my commitment to acting on the deeper current of respect and good will I have for those human beings in my presence, regardless of their habits or views. Love of neighbor shows itself in my commitment to not let seemingly natural aversions stand in the way of openness to friendship (variously defined), patience, and understanding. Love of neighbor, as Aquinas makes clear, in this way requires the theological virtue of charity – that is, God’s grace as it heals, builds upon, and transforms my natural propensities for both aversion and attraction, until neither of the latter have any role in what I understand to be authentic love. Love of neighbor can only mean love for the sake of the neighbor themselves, not because they do anything for me (for instance, produce “good” feelings), but simply because they are a human being, a participant in the very life of God.
Will I always feel warm and fuzzy about every human person I meet? No. Will I have the same kind of friendship with all human persons I meet? No. I can, however, pray for and cooperate with God’s grace in the hope that every human person I meet is treated with respect, patience, understanding, openness, good-will, and even friendship. Will I do this perfectly? Certainly not in this life. That is no reason, however, to not attempt what can be attempted through grace, and not to trust in forgiveness for the failures that are sure to ensue.
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