…quia quod quis vehementer desiderat, facile credit.
The other day, I saw retweeted into my Twitter timeline an old post on NYMag.com, claiming that with the help of a therapist, anyone can change his or her personality. Ignoring from the eyeroll-inducing shilling for the psychiatric profession, the article made me think: how popular is the belief that we are intractably set in our ways? The mutability of our youth is widely-acknowledged–“formative years” being an ever-repeated phrase–but once we reach adulthood, the common mantra is “that’s just the way I am”. The misleading pop-psych claims about neuroplasticity, ubiquitous a few years ago, have already seemingly disappeared.
Thinking about this for a little while, the word “pride” kept floating through my mind. Often said to be the root of all sins–true, in a very limited respect (cf. ST IIa-IIae, q.162, a.2, c.)–pride does not always take the obvious form of self-aggrandizement. Many admissions of “just being a certain way” are, rather, overt declarations of self-deprecation. Admitting oneself to be flawed takes the sting out of accusations from others. Instead of seeking to correct the flaw, however, the common move has been to call for tolerance of being flawed–after all, nobody is perfect, we all have our own little ways, we’re all just seeking our own bit of happiness, etc., etc. The language of tolerance then shifts to acceptance, and acceptance to praise and celebration, along with the insistence that this is what we should have been doing all along.
Some might see in this a nefarious strategy of slow moral erosion–certainly true, to some degree–but for the most part, the celebration of flaws stems from a belief that we are not responsible for them.
At the core of this unexamined belief, painfully common today, is that emotions are somehow separate from the activity of reason–that, while reason might subdue or unleash emotion, emotion itself is a bubble reason cannot penetrate, and thus we cannot help how we feel about things. While it is true that, most often, in the moment of a reaction we cannot immediately or completely change how we feel, the overall attitude is false, for several reasons: first, emotions are not indivisible atoms of the human psyche; second, human beings are creatures thoroughly-determined by habit; and third, emotions serve a purpose in the ordination of human fulfillment. Let’s go through these very quickly.
What are emotions?
Because familiarity with the experience of emotion is a given for almost everyone, it easily escapes conceptual, intellectual consideration. If I say “emotion”, or name one more specific such as anger, fear, sadness, excitement, happiness, and so on, you have some immediate personally-experienced point of reference. But merely having undergone an emotion does not mean that someone knows what that emotion is, let alone what emotion in general is. Ask someone what anger is, and most of the answers will be that it is an emotion–or a feeling, or a feeling opposite of happiness, or contentment, or peace, or something along those lines. What most people will not say, though it is the truth, is that anger is a desire. Specifically, anger is the unfulfilled desire to remove some obstacle to a further-desired good. A quick reflection on your own life should verify that every time you have been angry, it has been due to some perceived (whether truly or falsly) obstacle to a good you desire to see realized: whether it’s road rage, political rage, anger at being cheated, or at yourself, in every case–even when we’re not sure what it is we are being denied–our anger is aroused by the belief that something is preventing the realization of a good.
Likewise, positive emotions depend upon some apprehension producing an affective disposition. Take the expectation of a pleasure, for instance, of a dessert you’ve been saving. If you believe that you deserve it, or have earned it, then the expectation is partially unfulfilled but itself partially fulfilling, and eating the dessert is the fulfillment of the perceived good (if the dessert lives up to expectations, at least).
This shows us that our emotions are not isolated incidents or things, however, but relational patterns of apprehension and desire. Emotions are therefore as simple or as complicated as the patterns of relations which constitute them. It also shows us that reason is a constitutive factor, for perception (or apprehension; the “bones” of emotion) is a power of reason and antecedent to the desires (the “meat”) which produce feelings (the “skin”). The degree, therefore, to which we can shape our apprehension–quite a lot, actually–determines the “structure” of our emotional responses.
Humans and habits
There’s an awful lot that could be and should be said about habits. Why some things in the universe take habits while others do not is a great mystery; as is the fact that even things which do not themselves take habits build towards things which do. What is less mysterious, however, is how our specifically-human habits are formed: some of these are clearly at a sub-intellectual level, as the little things we pick up from our environments–physical adjustments, ticks, accents, imitations of parents and elder siblings, and so on–while others are more complex and involve our process of species-specifically human cognition. These include especially our moral and perceptual habits; for although our actions of perception and of moral relevance can be performed without thought, and thus our habits unexamined, they need not be; they can be shaped by deliberate, conscious consideration on our part. I can become angry at the driver who inconsiderately cuts me off, causing me to have to wait at a traffic light; or I can stop, and think that the 45 seconds I spend waiting are not that big a deal and therefore not worth the energy spent being futilely angry at someone I don’t even know and will possibly never encounter again–or perhaps that person had a better reason to be in a rush than myself. If I do this regularly when someone drives inconsiderately, I begin to form a habit, and thereafter do not have to think about the situation not to become angry. In this way, I consciously habituate myself.
The same applies in every situation where emotion can powerfully arise: with desires of food, sex, irritation, remorse, and so on.
Emotions and the good
This does not mean that emotions should always be quelled, however. There is a time and a place to be angry (with the Nazi, the would-be-rapist, the attempted murderer, the obstinately and willfully stupid) and a time and a place to enjoy good food in the right proportion, and a time and a place to be sexually passionate. These are not matters of allowance, unleashing otherwise imprisoned feelings, but matters of actively pursuing possession of and delight in the good. The key is not rigidly imposing an intellectually-discerned order from above, but in directing and training the emotions to fulfill their natural purpose in the overall good of the human being. Training ourselves to see things as they really are and act in accordance with that perception is how we conform our desires to our beliefs.
But this, as we will see in a moment, is a two-way street.
Pride goeth before the Flaw
The consequence of emotions being indirectly under our control–inasmuch as we can control the conceptual/perceptual framework through which our apprehension is mediated and interpreted–means that we are responsible, to at least some degree, for our flaws; perhaps not for coming to have them in the first place, but certainly for continuing to act on them once we recognize that we can.
This is likely why so many people readily believe that they are not responsible for aspects of their personality, most especially the evident flaws–or that these flaws are in fact aspects to be celebrated. As Aquinas says (ST IIa-IIae, q.162, a.3, ad.2):
humilitas attendit ad regulam rationis rectae, secundum quam aliquis veram existimationem de se habet. Hanc autem regulam rectae rationis non attendit superbia, sed de se maiora existimat quam sint. Quod contingit ex inordinato appetitu propriae excellentiae, quia quod quis vehementer desiderat, facile credit. Et ex hoc etiam eius appetitus in altiora fertur quam sibi conveniant. Et ideo quaecumque ad hoc conferant quod aliquis existimet se supra id quod est, inducunt hominem ad superbiam.
humility attends to the rule of right reason, according to which someone holds oneself in true esteem. Pride does not attend to this rule of right reason, but esteems oneself greater than one is. This follows from an inordinate appetite for one’s own excellence; because that which is vehemently desired is easily believed. And from this, one’s appetite is brought to things higher than are fitting to oneself. And therefore whatsoever brings one to esteem oneself higher than one is, induces a human to pride.
Who doesn’t want to believe oneself excellent? In the days before the internet, viral videography, even television and radio, it was probably easier to believe oneself excellent in at least some minor ways; grow up in a small town somewhere, and you might not be the best at anything, but you’ve a good chance to be bettter at something than most others are. Now in the omnipresence of great talent, we are unimpressed with the minor talents by which we are surrounded, including and especially our own.
Thus Thomas’ fundamental insight remains true but the circumstances are altered: instead of bringing the appetite to things higher than what is fitting to oneself, we claim as not only fitting, but as higher than they really are, the appetites we already have; and this, indisputably, is pride, for it indisputably brings one to esteem oneself higher than one is.
So allow me to save your therapist some time and you some money: if you want to change who you are, the first step is recognizing that you can. The second is recognizing that, contra butt-groping Al Franken’s alter-ego Stuart Smalley, you are not good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people don’t like you. As Thomas quotes Gregory the Great (Moralia, sive Expositio in Job, xxiii.17): “holy men, by a consideration of others’ virtues, set others above themselves.”