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Virtue and our emotions

Laraine Bennett

Is it possible to be virtuous and yet still be an emotional wreck? According to some psychologists, a well-balanced emotional life may be a prerequisite for growth in virtue. Deep emotional wounds or a lack of self-acceptance hinders our sense of being lovable, and can even hurt our ability to freely choose the good.1 Consider the classic story of the teenage girl who feels rejected by her dad so she runs off with the first boy that shows her some attention.2 Or consider the young man who can’t hold a job because he is continually rebelling against all authority figures—even as an adult. And there are many who struggle with same-sex attraction because of deep emotional wounds as children.

Healing deep emotional wounds is often the first step in becoming more capable of growth and of making rational, objectively wise choices. Someone who was abandoned or physically abused as a child might have a difficult time being open to love and might have a tough time choosing healthy relationships. A past trauma can have a serious impact on a person’s ability to trust and to form intimate relationships, especially if the trauma involved the betrayal of trust by a loved one. This makes it difficult to trust others with our deepest thoughts and most intimate feelings and to trust that we will not be abandoned or hurt again.

Extreme emotions can paralyze us. When we are bound up by fear and anxiety or we are feeling depressed, we find it very difficult to do anything, much less something good. Someone who is depressed no longer feels any joy in life—not even about things that he or she knows are wonderful. The depressed person may be too exhausted to get out of bed, even for a cup of steaming hot coffee. Another person may be so fearful and anxious that she can’t seem to make a simple decision. Moods can be nearly as stultifying and narrow our emotional options. If we are in a “blue mood,” we are predisposed to becoming sad; if we are in a grumpy mood, we are ready to become angry at the slightest provocation. If we are in a good mood, we are less likely to become provoked by troublesome situations. In most cases, when we are in a mood, we are less likely to read the situation objectively and more likely to respond inappropriately.

How are our emotions related to virtue?

Virtue is usually understood as the habit of doing good; doing good becomes part of one’s disposition or character through repeated good acts. This, in turn, shapes an individual’s inclinations so that they are ever more inclined to the good. And as we increase our ability to make good choices and grow in virtue, we find a corresponding increase in our emotional well-being. As the famous saying goes, “Virtue is its own reward.”

However, doing good and virtuous acts does not always cause us to feel happy. If we are performing virtuous acts solely as a matter of duty, because we “ought” to do so, we may not feel a corresponding sense of joy in doing good.

There may be underlying reasons why being virtuous does not lead to a sense of joy in accomplishment. Psychologist Frank Moncher and theologian Craig Titus describe a case study of a religious sister.3 Sister Lydia (a pseudonym) was a dutiful and hardworking member of her community, but she was feeling exhausted in her daily routine, and she kept herself emotionally distant from her sisters. The authors explain that Sr. Lydia was doing the right things externally, yet she felt no corresponding joy or pleasure in them. It was like a stoical “white knuckling” that doesn’t have the happy result of freely and easily choosing the good and feeling a corresponding joy.

It turns out that Sr. Lydia had been stuffing her feelings for a long time because of deep emotional wounds from her childhood. She kept herself distant from her sisters in the community because she had learned (from childhood) that other people (even loved ones) were untrustworthy and potentially dangerous. She needed to become aware of how her childhood situation was affecting the way she related to her fellow sisters in her community. Because she was always afraid that her emotions would erupt inappropriately, she withdrew from her fellow religious and repressed her own feelings.

Sometimes very well-intentioned Catholics (perhaps Sr. Lydia) fear that emotions in themselves are evil, and so it’s better to bottle them up than to express them. But evil doesn’t lie in our passions. It does not lie in our faculties, but rather in the object of our desire or will. So we don’t have to be afraid of our emotions. God wants us to turn the power of our passions and our will toward that which is truly good. Accepting our emotions is the first step.

Sr. Lydia’s case does not detract from the valid point that doing good does make us feel better—especially when we are truly acting virtuously. But being happy or feeling joy in our virtuous actions may not occur immediately. Imagine trying to play a musical instrument with no knowledge of how to do so. The sounds emitted from the instrument will be terrible and painful to the ear. But once you have struggled through the tedium of learning the simple notes and have practiced over and over, you will be able to play beautiful music. After all those hours of practice, the beautiful music is your reward.

Growing in virtue is similar. Like practicing in order to play a musical instrument well, the road to happiness requires self-control and perseverance. Through education, the deliberate performance of virtuous acts, and perseverance, we can grow in the human virtues (as opposed to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are infused by God into our souls). As we continue our musical practice, our options improve. We are no longer limited to simple tunes like “Chopsticks”; we can now play music by Chopin and Beethoven and Debussy. We are happier as we become more accomplished. Similarly, practicing virtuous acts helps us grow further in virtue, improves our character and our relationships, and even brings us happiness. As the Catechism bluntly states: “Either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (2339). With growth in virtue and self-mastery, both freedom and happiness increase. Through God’s grace, our human virtues will become infused with love for God and will be directed toward him. Then, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “All things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

Adapted from The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics to Healthy and Holy Living, Copyright © 2011 by Art and Laraine Bennett, The Word Among Us Press, Frederick, MD, 21704. Used with permission.

1 Moncher and Titus, “Foundations for a Psychotherapy of Virtue: An Integrated Catholic Perspective,” 22–35.
2 Meg Meeker convincingly presents much evidence for the importance of dads in their daughters’ lives. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006).
3 Moncher and Titus, 23ff

Topics: Personal Growth , Relationships

Laraine Bennett co-authored, with her husband Art, The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse and The Temperament God Gave You, published by Sophia Institute Press. Their new book, The Emotions God Gave You, is due Spring 2011. Please visit their website at http://temperaments.sophiainstitute.com/.

View all articles by Laraine Bennett

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