Christ and the Stoics, Part 2. (Emotions)

A few weeks ago, Ash and I were on a walk, and she said to me, "You always say you're not emotional, but I don't think that's true." She meant it as a compliment. And she was also completely right. For years, I'd prided myself on being emotionally 'tough.' The reality, though was when things got emotional, I reacted with one of two strategies. 1) Using humor and sarcasm to deflate or dismiss the situation. 2) Complete shutdown mode. I became a fortress and you were not getting in. You couldn't hurt me.

A few times in the earlier years of our marriage, when we got in intense fights, I literally just fell asleep. Straight possum mode. What kind of defense mechanism was that? In those 'fortress moments' I would tell myself that I wasn't controlled by emotions and I was 'tough.' But that wasn't true. Emotions still controlled me because I was fighting desperately to avoid them.

As I read the Stoics, I realize more and more that Stoicism isn't about the removal or suppression of emotions. We are all emotional creatures, and God wired us that way. It's more about giving emotions their proper place in your life, and not being controlled or overwhelmed by them. Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Frame your thoughts like this: you are an old person, you won't let yourself be enslaved by emotions any longer, no longer pulled like a puppet by every impulse." (Meditations 2.2)

We should have curiosity and clarity about our emotions. "Why am I being triggered by this? What's going on underneath? Is this really a big deal or am I just making it into one?" Epictetus wrote, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test." (Stoics used the term 'impression' to mean your initial interpretation/perception of something.)  In other words, don't let your emotions overwhelm you to the point that you can't see, think, or act clearly.

These ideas, of course, are consistent with the Christian life.  Paul wrote about this to the Ephesians- "It's normal to be angry, but it's not an excuse to sin. Don't hold onto that anger, because when you do that you're giving the devil a foothold in your life." James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God." Solomon wrote, "Better a person that can control his spirit than one who can control a city."

We should seek to act in accordance to our convictions, not our emotions. Emotions can serve as fuel to put our virtues into action, but they should not be in the driver's seat. If our emotions cause us to act in ways that we'd later regret (because they don't reflect who we really want to be), we know that we are just a puppet being pulled by a string.  We are giving away control of ourselves to someone or something else. Being angry is not a justifiable excuse for acting like a jerk. Jesus was the perfect model for this. He was undeniably emotional and passionate, but he never let his emotions betray his character.