Every day we are assailed by our emotions. There must be a thousand different emotions that we experience in a day!
From the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep, emotions tug at us, feelings confound us, our hearts challenge us, elate and berate us. We are such a mix of emotions from the obvious ones like excitement and anticipation, hurt and anger to the more subtle ones like unease and anxiety or on the plus side, a humming satisfaction or a brimming wellbeing.
From the joyful to the fretful, the positive glow to the negative flow, the river of emotions moves ceaselessly through us. You could say emotions maketh the human.
For some, their emotions are a catalyst for constructiveness and creativity. Great leaders harness their emotional energy to inspire themselves and others to achieve great acts. The 1960’s American politician, Adlai Stevenson contrasting his own ability with John F Kennedy’s charisma said: ‘Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero finished speaking, the people said, “how well he spoke” – but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, “let us march”.
Poets in particular know all about the potentiality of emotionality.
The art of poetry lies in its ability to capture and articulate the tremulous sensitivity of our emotions.
It was the great English poet William Wordsworth who said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. Wordsworth knew a lot about the potency of the emotive. He also understood that emotionality and spirituality are deeply intertwined.
Some of his most memorable lines capture the beauty and unity of spirit and emotion:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey).
And this is exactly what makes some written prayers so infinite in their beauty and ability to transform us. It is what makes some of the Bible’s most memorable passages sing. King David’s Psalms resonate with a range of emotions from the raging to the languid. They make us laugh and shout out in happiness, they make us cry and feel the dark pit of our depression. They express some of our deepest and even most unfathomable feelings.
When these words are set to music they can achieve an even more sublime height of power.
Think of the great operas, think of some of the great lyrical folk and pop singers.
For me, Leonard Cohen is one of the contemporary poets and singers who so successfully captured this when strung out his words and music into a beautiful polished string of pearls. Probably his most famous song, Hallelujah, manifests this most clearly.
Judaism has long recognised the power and pathos of emotions. From the stirring passages of the Bible to the Talmudic sages comment that God wants our hearts, the positive place of emotion in our lives is recognised. Jewish tradition however also acknowledges that emotions can distract, disrupt and destroy. Religious inspiration is just a step away from religious fervour and fanaticism. Emotions need to be channelled, controlled and directed to be most effective.
Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that religious emotion can be volatile and unstable. People, he says, feel experiences differently and discerning what is a genuine religious experience can be extremely difficult.
Yes, emotions have power. It has been said that emotional intelligence is the ability to harness that power to understand and manage emotions, so that you can make decisions that are in harmony with your core values and principles.
The Torah reading this week states we should not ‘follow after our own hearts and our own eyes’ (Numbers 15:39). Normally, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we would expect it to be the other way round. First we see, then we feel. But, says Sacks, the Torah reverses the order and stresses the very point that cognitive behavioural therapy makes, which is, that often feelings distort our perception.
CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us that our thoughts can wreak havoc on our emotions. Thoughts like I am a failure, or I am useless, or things will never change, are demoralising and impede our ability to move forward.
One of the central challenges of our lives is not to let these negative emotions distort our perceptions, not to let fear destroy our faith and hope.
Poet Iain Thomas has written that every day, the world grabs you by the hand and says, ‘This is important, this is where you should be putting your energy and this is where you should be directing your priorities’.
And every day, you have to pull your hand back and place it against your heart and say, ‘No, this is important; this is what really counts. I will be guided by my heart, directed by my principles and driven by my faith’. I will also strive for clarity of mind and clear thinking for they too are critical.
Life is not merely about getting the logic right. It’s about getting your heart and mind in synch. It’s about growing an informed heart, chochmat lev…