Where Do Our Emotions Come From?

Woman with her head in her handsI spend a couple of chapters in my book talking about this question, but I’ve had some experiences and run across some interesting material lately that is helpful in further clarifying the issue.

First, a small personal incident from last week. If you can remember back that far, the big issue was: “Is Kim Jong-un going to attack the US with his nuclear warheads? Are we

 headed into the much-talked-about World War III?” It seemed all too possible that two reckless, erratic national leaders were going to land us in the collective soup.

And I lost it. I burst into tears and said over and over to Jim, “I thought we’d have more time!” All of a sudden it seemed to me as if the end of the world was upon us.

Well, we’re still here. For now, anyway.

So a further question: Where did that outburst of emotion come from? And the answer is that it came from my belief system, aided by my tendency to dramatize and catastrophize. In other words, I really do believe that the world is going to end some day, that, in the grand old wording of the King James Version of the Bible, “the elements will melt with fervent heat” (II Peter 3:10). So when events seemed to be leading that way, even remotely, I reacted quite viscerally. My emotions didn’t come out of nowhere. They had a perfectly understandable source, one that I trust. I was also kind of ignoring some of the other parts of my belief system, such as the sovereignty of God, which is an error that always gets me into trouble. (So how did Jim react? He did the wisest thing possible, which was to suggest that we pray. We did, and I calmed down.)

And I was reminded of an article and a podcast episode that I’ve been meaning to write about and which now seemed even more appropriate, on this very subject: not the question of how the world will end, but the one about the sources of our emotions. The article is from The Federalist, one of the news outlets I ran across back last summer when I started reading about the election, titled “NPR: We Don’t Need Safe Spaces Because People Can Control Their Emotions.” In it, the author says,

Of course, no one expects to hear conservative viewpoints coming from NPR. I certainly don’t listen to NPR expecting to hear my own views echoed, but rather to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints on current events. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard a recent episode of NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast presenting a scientific case against safe spaces.

I’ve listened to “Invisibilia” before, but not as a podcast. It used to be aired on Friday mornings on Colorado Public Radio, but then for some reason it was dropped. I wrote about an episode from their first season about a year ago in “The Genius of Non-Complementary Behavior.” (Please ignore the weird formatting of that post; when we transferred to a new web platform there were some issues that don’t seem to be fixable.) I’ve now pretty much decided that I need to go back and make sure I’ve listened to every episode of “Invisibilia,” and I’d urge you to do the same.

But if you don’t want to do that, you should at least listen to Emotions: Part One. Be sure you stick with it through the whole thing; otherwise, you may think that they’re making a point they’re not making. Just to be clear. What they are saying is that emotions can be managed. You don’t have to go around for the rest of your life feeling a certain way. You can learn to reshape your preconceived notions, what you’ve been taught and what you’ve learned, or thought you’ve learned, and your emotions will then follow suit. I am also reminded as I write this of an article that came out in the Washington Post last year: “The White Flight of Derek Black,” about the son of Stormfront’s founder. (Stormfront is the oldest and largest of the white nationalist websites; I go there once in awhile to see what new craziness has erupted, but in reality it’s always the same old craziness. You’ll note, by the way, that I haven’t included a link to the site.) Anyway, Derek was raised in the whole us-vs.-them mentality, with David Duke as his godfather. (His mother was once married to Duke. Strange world, that.) Eventually he went off to college and actually met some Jews and blacks, and lo and behold! He discovered that they were also . . . people. Have to say that the way he was treated was pretty impressive. Once his identity leaked out on campus a group of his friends, including a Jew, asked themselves, “How can we change this guy’s mind?” And so Derek was invited over for the weekly Shabbat meals held at his Jewish friend’s apartment. You really need to read the whole story. I wasn’t going to allow myself to take the time to re-read it, but I just did. It’s great.

I’ll be posting at some point about the book written by the psychologist who has fostered this whole idea of how we choose our emotions. In the meantime I think I’ve given you plenty of reading material. Enjoy!

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