I don’t think too many people in the spotlight these days will have to worry about anyone accusing them of being rational. With the news this week about the terrible things Roseanne Barr tweeted, and the potential collateral damage that people will endure who had depended on her show for a source of income, I’m reminded of how infrequently people think before they act and how much we all suffer because of it.
I’ve read a good amount of research which indicates that it’s not only celebrities who have a problem with irrationality. In fact, by default, all people are driven by their emotional promptings. In his book, The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that most people’s decision making is driven almost entirely by gut reactions. He compares it to a person riding an elephant. With great effort and intention, a person can steer the elephant they are riding, but for the most part, the elephant is going to go where it pleases. The same is true of our minds and emotions. Gut reactions are the elephant that will drive us by default. Only with serious reflection and intent can we learn to use rational thought before we succumb to the will of our instincts.
For me, a path to growth on this issue has been learning to differentiate myself from my emotions. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. There are situations and scenarios that make me feel anxious. There are inner drives and appetites that move me toward certain actions. But in the end, I must take ownership of and responsibility for what I do.
Though it’s a bit of a violent illustration, think of it this way: No matter how angry or out of control you feel at any given moment, if a person puts a loaded gun up to your head and tells you to be still, or even to smile, you would be able to do it. With extremely few exceptions, I’m at a point where I no longer believe in a person “losing control.” It’s just our excuse for failing to separate our autonomy from our instincts.
All paths that lead to growth and health involve taking ownership of our impulses. Of all the appetites you possess, none of them can be left completely unchecked. Too much food leads to misery. Too much adventure leads to exhaustion. Too much untethered anger leads to regretful actions. There are ample examples in pop culture of what happens when a person attempts to fulfill their every sexual desire. All appetites have the potential for destruction if allowed to run rampant.
It isn’t very American to speak of the value of self-denial, but these days, we could use a good deal more of it. Consider how things have been going without it. Partisan divides get increasingly toxic. People are living out of the reptilian parts of their brain: freeze, fight, or flight. Who has time for humor, unless it is used for an attack? Who can afford to show a softer side to the enemy, knowing they will exploit it and use it against you? Everything is serious, cold, and calculated.
I would remind us of the value of meekness. In modern usage, the word has become synonymous with weakness, but its proper usage is much needed. Meekness is power under control. It doesn’t mean being weak. It means being strong enough to be stable. It doesn’t mean being helpless, it means knowing that I have the ability to choose how I will act, and I am not merely at the mercy of my passions and appetites. In fact, even when I experience setbacks, failures, and disappointments, I might even be able to laugh about it, because I retain my personhood, even if I don’t like my circumstances.
Feeling angry doesn’t mean you have to give full vent to your anger. Feeling anxious doesn’t mean you have to succumb to irrationality. Each of us has a large, wild elephant that will drive us all over the place unless we tame it. God described it in the following way when he saw the murderous direction that Cain’s anger was driving him:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
You “must” rule over your desires. First, because you can. Second, because if you don’t rule over your desires, your desires will rule over you. Self-indulgence has not produced good fruit for us. Perhaps we should try something different.