Thursday, November 14, 2013

In Defense of Emotions

By Mary C. Tillotson

Image by Alin Klim
When I was a sophomore in college, I dated a guy, and it wasn't a great relationship. I spent a huge amount of energy struggling with an intense desire to not be dating him alongside an inability to find a good reason why I shouldn't. "I don't want to" is selfish and therefore not a good enough reason (I reasoned) because that was based on emotion.

I spent the beginning of my senior year sighing to a friend that I was having the hardest time in the world getting over this other very attractive man. He was smart, mature, from Michigan, good with kids, and surrounded by plenty of other like-minded women at a college 500 miles away from me, and would graduate two years after I did.

When he asked me out later that fall, I was more relieved than anything else. Oh good. Now I don't have to get over you. We've been married for a little more than a year, and marrying him is one of the best decisions I've ever made.

In both cases, my emotions were right on (hindsight, and some friends I didn't listen to, told me the first guy had a lot more growing up to do), and my reason was off track. I've done some maturing since then, and I've come to realize that my strong hunches are generally on target. It sort of bothers me: like most people, I want to think I make rational decisions instead of emotional decisions. But, at least with me, my emotions are usually wiser.

Let's go back to college for a minute. I remember hearing some people say that women shouldn't learn Greek, or shouldn't earn Ph.Ds, or that women were generally less rational than men. All of this bothered me to the core, and I think much of it came out of the overeager liberal arts college student's zeal to save the world via Aristotle.

I think it's stupid to say women shouldn't learn Greek or earn Ph.Ds; if you're a woman and you want to, go for it. It's wrong to think of women as crazy, hormone-ridden creatures that can't be trusted with anything important or meaningful. It's inaccurate and insulting to think of women as a little less intelligent than men, or not quite up to speed.

But I'm haunted by the fact that my hunches are a better decision-making guide than my reason. It's not just relationships -- it's basically any big decision.

Maybe reason and emotions are like paper and plastic grocery bags. Your preference for one or the other doesn't say anything about your grocery shopping competence. But whether you know how to use the bags, and whether the bags are intact -- that matters.

Likewise, the method (or more specifically, the blend of methods) you use to find truth and make decisions doesn't say anything about whether you can handle meaningful work, whether you're smart, whether your ideas correspond to reality, or whether you generally make prudent decisions. If your hunches have proven reliable, it makes sense to trust the next one, even if it's hard to articulate why.

But reason and emotions can both go awry (Raskolnikov, anyone?). It doesn't make sense to trust one to the total exclusion of the other.

Maybe the classical idea that women are "less rational" than men is partly true -- not that we're dumber (we're not), not that we can't be analytical or do math (we can), but that our brains are wired differently and we have a different method for reaching equally intelligent conclusions.

Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II), in Love and Responsibility, wrote that women's "emotional life is generally richer than a man's." When I read that, I thought: Ha! Yeah, that's one way to put it. Because this:

But if we really believe that, if we buy into this idea that all our anger and sadness and happy-to-tears and resistance is all because of PMS and therefore not legitimate, we're selling ourselves short. We're not valuing ourselves for who we are.

Yes, our hormones affect our emotions. But that doesn't mean we're crazy. Karol Wojtyla said it better: not that women overreact all the time, but that, in one way, we experience life more richly.

We shouldn't mock ourselves for feeling.

I'll leave you with the words of the ever-quotable G.K. Chesterton:
"The differences between a man and a woman are at the best so obstinate and exasperating that they practically cannot be got over unless there is an atmosphere of exaggerated tenderness and mutual interest. To put the matter in one metaphor, the sexes are two stubborn pieces of iron; if they are to be welded together, it must be while they are red-hot. Every woman has to find out that her husband is a selfish beast, because every man is a selfish beast by the standard of a woman. But let her find out the beast while they are both still in the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Every man has to find out that his wife is cross — that is to say, sensitive to the point of madness: for every woman is mad by the masculine standard. But let him find out that she is mad while her madness is more worth considering than anyone else’s sanity."


  1. Really liked this post.

    1. Thanks, Laura! This topic has been on my mind for years, and will probably remain there for many more.

  2. I'm the same way... I'm an INFJ, so I'm definitely guided more by my emotions. But I make a lot of decisions based on "just a feeling" and I'm often right (with a few relationship exceptions, of course). I also think God works through our emotions - there's something to our gut feelings!

    1. I think so too, Liesl. I think emotions are much more important than we realize. Of course, they can go awry, as most former teenage girls will attest :) But reason can go awry, too -- Dostoevsky's novels are full of this. I don't think we should try to banish emotion from our life and our decision-making; rather, I think we should try to order it to virtue and reality, then take our feelings into consideration, too.


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