Seeking Catholic Emotional Maturity
Philosophical Musings on the Passions
In our world today, a lot of effort goes into fostering good emotional health. False helps such as flattery, enabling, relativism, ambiguity, and avoidance are often found in what some call “safe-spaces.” We are living in a society overcome with anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and many other challenges that cannot be overcome by horsing around with truth. There is may be no magic bullet to these difficulties. Nonetheless, it may be time for us to turn back and look towards the philosophers who had some wisdom to share with us on fostering good emotional health.
In particular, I’d like for us to return to St. Thomas Aquinas. He had a great deal to say about the passions. Unlike the pejorative notion of his philosophy, St. Thomas was not inclined to suppress the passions – rather he sought to outline for us how we might find peace and the fulfillment of all desires.
Before categorizing the passions into the two categories he sets out for us, it’s important to note that to St. Thomas, the passions were healthy if they were rooted in what was truly good and conversely an awareness of what was truly evil. The passions themselves have causes, and they generally associated with our own understanding around the notion of good and evil, even if it’s at times a subconscious attitude.
The two categories, with which St. Thomas places the passions in are entitled the Concupiscible and Irascible. In more contemporary language we might say, those passions where we find ease or a sense of rest, and those passions that involve some type of frustration or anger. Irascible passions have to do with our desire to overcome evil, thereby teaching us that if we are to experience these passions it is due to a perceived notion of an evil that we can by some effort of daring, or anger, can overcome. The Concupiscible passions, on the other hand, are for passions such as love (here, more of a desire or affection that Agape-love), hate, and despair and happiness. Oddly, one often thinks of despair as a place of frustration, and hope as a place of rest. To Aquinas, the converse is actually the case. Despair is a place of “giving-up” in the face of evil. Hope (not as a virtue, but as a passion) on the other hand endures trials and confronts them because the longing of the soul still stretches out towards some good when it is absent.
There is more to learn and reflect on, but one can quickly see a few dangers to Emotional Health and Maturity. One particular danger is if our concept of what is good is flawed either by our own rationalizations or innocent errors. Our passions will then likewise be borne within us in a twisted way. Why else would Sally be happy that Joe fell on his face? Or that an envious student was sad Johnny God perfect on his exam? Emotional maturity isn’t about which emotions we experience, its rather about an alignment with the truth about what is good and what is evil.
For this reason, passionate exhortations mean very little, if the content itself is not grounded in goodness. So this leaves us with the age old question: what is good? Jesus seems to say that only God is. Perhaps the best way to understand this is that nothing is ultimately good without union to Him. We are so blessed to have the Catechism, the Scriptures and the Church to teach us what is good and evil. But this simply isn’t enough to change our passions.
Having been informed it is still common for one to have his or her passions incline them towards the good in a disordered manner. This indicates that true belief around what is good and evil is entirely integrated through the development of virtue – good habits. In my next article I’d like to share with you what the four-stages in developing virtue are. This will help us, by the grace of God, cooperate with our own freedom to experience our passions in mature manner. Don’t be demoralized by that expression – emotional maturity is likely something every fallen human being must confront with him or herself. Yet virtue begins the process of overcoming and managing some of these difficult dimensions we find in ourselves. It’s a way for us to spiritually ask the Lord to have a heart and mind like Christ’s.