As a kid I had a gift for understanding intellectual, scientific, things, or at least, I think I did. I was fascinated with nature, biology, computers, technology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and more.
I’m still fascinated by all these things, but my fascination with other things has sprouted. I’ve since learned that I love history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and more.
I also used to have the mindset that emotions were these burdens we were stuck with as human beings. Feelings that complicated our thinking, that got in the way of making good decisions.
Regardless, I was raised in a home that taught me to follow the Spirit, follow the Holy Ghost, and that I should follow it by using my feelings and emotions. There was the teaching that I should “study it out in my mind” and then make the final decision based on how I “felt.”
The Childhood Discovery of Emotions
It was easy to recognize and listen to the positive emotions, but I was never given a whole lot instruction on dealing with the negative emotions: boredom, loneliness, anger, fear, stress, fatigue, sadness. I was told to read the scriptures, go to church, talk to my parents, and help others. Those are good things, but the advice was a bit incomplete, and I often still didn’t recognize those things in myself.
For anyone who’s seen the movie by “Inside Out” by Pixar, like the main character, I may have felt a pressure to exude positivity and happiness all the time. Those came pretty easy to me, and it was an ever-present compliment from strangers or my parents’ friends that I was always smiling. I felt a naive confidence that I was in control of my emotions, and at times I obnoxiously put down others who weren’t, or gloated over people who couldn’t control their negative emotions.
I remember one night, my younger brother telling me, “You’re making me MAD,” and I telling him back, “Nope, I can’t MAKE you do anything. If you’re mad, it’s because you want to be mad.” He was furious with me, and I thought I was hot stuff that I wasn’t the one that made him that way and that I wasn’t feeling angry back.
Steffen, I’m really sorry.
Emotion and Action
There was some truth to what I was saying that night, but my actions were not helping anything. I didn’t MAKE him mad, but I certainly contributed to it, a lot.
We do that often in life. We influence the feelings of others through our actions. We can do this in both directions. We can help people feel good or help them feel sad. We can’t MAKE them feel these things, but we can certainly make it easier or more difficult for them to deal with their emotions in constructive ways. While I am responsible for the actions I take because of my emotions, I have learned to take into account the effect that others have on me, and now I have to practice compensating for, or dealing with those effects from others.
Emotions are valuable tools. They are the fire inside us that pushes us in our chosen (or unchosen!) direction. An emotion is a widespread response inside our brain, triggered by some loaded memory, thought, or action, that calls to action parts of our brain that wouldn’t normally be involved in the thinking process or action process.
If our conscious thought is the steering wheel, emotions are the engine. Our brains do an ENORMOUS amount of thinking behind the scenes, most of which we are unaware of. It calculates and deduces and decides long before we know it does, and long before our conscious thought becomes aware of it, much of it in the form of emotions below the surface, triggered by some…thing…that we encountered in the last hour, this morning, or even the previous week. The effects are long lasting and very pervasive.
I had to go through a lot of my own rough times to learn this. For a period of time, I was very, very alone, and it seemed like my life was falling apart and I wanted it to end. I went to see a therapist, I found a support group, I relied on a lot of prayer and quiet moments to think through the whole thing. My family was 400 miles away, and my cell phone was my life-line to people who cared about me.
And they were a tremendous help. They took to heart, the council in Mosiah 18:8-10, that those who are uniting themselves with the teachings of Jesus Christ should “mourn with those that mourn” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Or as Paul admonishes, “Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Romans 12:15).
Sympathy vs Empathy
That kind of empathy I received from my family and a few close friends, as well as professionals and even strangers, was enlightening for me. I’d been taught about empathy just a bit before, but I don’t think I really understood it. In our current society, the word “sympathy” is falling out of favor as a negative thing and being replaced with “empathy.”
Sympathy says, “I feel bad for what happened to you.” Empathy says, “I may not know what you are going through, but I can understand those feelings.” Sympathy has a strong tendency toward selfishness, self-pity, and emotional manipulation (if others feel bad for me, they would do things for me), while empathy keeps responsibility for feelings in the appropriate corners but brings about unity between people who can share similar feelings.
It makes me think of the definition of “Zion” found in the Book of Moses 7:18, “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind and there was no poor among them.”
This Zion could only be achieved by a people rejoicing with each other and mourning with each other. Think of what that would be like. If my neighbor enjoys a huge success that elevates his position, comfort, or status in life, I wouldn’t be jealous of him, I’d be ecstatic!
If my friend loses healthy use of his body, I wouldn’t tell myself, “Well, he was careless and took big risks, serves him right!” I’d go to his side and help him work through what happened as he tried to make sense of it and learn to cope with it. If he really did lose something because of his own poor choices, he is mostly likely going to figure that out with healthy support and the safety that empathy brings. We gain the ability to think clearly when we feel safe and supported.
God Counsels us to Develop Empathy
King Benjamin described this in his sermon, “and ye yourselves, succor those that stand in need of succor…perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just – But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same has great cause to repent” (Mosiah 4:16-18).
We need to know what others are feeling and do what we can to help them, and we cannot do that if we don’t know them. When we know them, we will have one heart AND one mind. We will be individuals with different backgrounds, gifts, and experiences, united in a common purpose, bringing ourselves to the group to enhance it.
So how does this relate to the target of Men and the Priesthood? As men, it is a mix of biology, culture, upbringing, and peer pressure that keeps us from expressing our own emotions. When we don’t express our emotions, we stop recognizing them. When we don’t recognize our emotions, give names to them, address each one appropriately, we let them do what they want, below the surface, without oversight or supervision.
Only when one breaks the surface do we finally address it, but by then it’s been getting it’s way for a long time. This shows up in an outburst of anger, frustration, or a lost temper. It shows up as an unproductive past-time. It shows up as addictions. It shows up as detachment from others, distancing ourselves from loved ones. It shows up as sin.
My wife and I and other family members have been working hard with my son to teach him how to recognize his own emotions. He got to attend a summer school focused on this. The class was almost entirely boys. They did exercises and assignments to recognize, describe, and learn what each emotion does. I think it has helped. When he sees something scary and tries to downplay it in an attempt to be strong or tough, we talk about it. “What you saw WAS scary. It’s okay, you NEED to know that, or your brain will stop trying to tell you what is scary and not and it will just do its own thing without you.” To keep in charge of his body, he needs to recognize his feelings.
Most men have this disconnect. Many women do as well, but it doesn’t seem as prevalent. Maybe it’s just a human nature problem that affects everyone, but men in mostly this way. Maybe it’s a challenge built into the “system” and Plan of Salvation by a loving God who set this place up for our learning and growing.
The Priesthood and Empathy
The church and the Priesthood are near-perfect vehicles for helping us with this challenge. It pulls us out of ourselves and into the lives of others, not just our wives and children, but also our neighbors, ward-members, and even strangers. It puts us into a position of service to others. It puts us into a position where we are supposed to listen to others, to get to know them, to serve them, and occasionally counsel them, but mostly find ways to help. It encourages us to Give, to spend energy, to love, to work for others without thought of reward or gain.
For some nay-sayers out there who will claim that magnifying our priesthood is selfish because it works toward our Eternal Life and Salvation, I will put out that no threat of hellfire and damnation ever worked well to get men to do their home-teaching. Those who home-teach faithfully and regularly don’t do it for selfish reasons, they do it out of love for others. Eternity is too far away and home teaching is too “small” an act to be a consistent motivator.
It would be nice to think that intellect can stand on its own two feet without the complication of messy emotions, but it can’t. It is inextricably tied to our emotions. If sadness, fear, or anger is what is boiling below the surface, our intellect tends towards cynicism and mistrust. When love and joy are what our minds focus on, we put more emphasis on hope, cooperation, and gratitude. Most of us are a mix of both.
Ever heard that story of two wolves inside of us? One filled with fear and doubt, the other with hope and love. Which one wins? The one we feed. Most of us feed both.
Neither side is blind to the truths of the world, but our emotions will drive our thinking, which then drives our actions, whatever those truths of the world actually are. Our focus determines our direction, regardless of truth or reality.
I remember an incident at a park where many people were sledding. Near the bottom of one of the hills was a post embedded deep into the ground and most people just went right by it. Two boys went down this hill, in a steerable sled, the one driving could not take his focus off the post and several bystanders watched them turn and veer right into it.
Now, with all this in mind, think about what happens to our intellect, our emotions, and our actions when we focus on things like a perfect God who loves us unconditionally, a priesthood that expects us to serve, and a weekly Sacrament that points us to a merciful Savior. Do you think our emotions, intellect, and actions will start to align and harmonize with those thoughts? Absolutely.
This is why, even if someone doesn’t believe in a literal Savior, the thinking of and hoping for one can still create an improvement in their lives.
I know there is a Savior. I have felt Him in ways that are undeniable and I have seen His touch in my life in unmistakeable ways, even when not looking for Him.