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Letting Emotions Flow

Some believe that putting the intellect in charge means suffocating the emotions and limiting their flow. The opposite is true. The intellect's job is to allow emotions to flow freely, while at the same time directing them into the correct channels.
Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Haim
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1. Intellect and Emotion
2. Every Emotion Needs to Be Given Direction
3. Letting the Emotions Flow

Intellect and Emotion
In the previous article, we discussed the fact that every human being has a role and purpose in the world, and this includes personality development and the improvement of character traits. We saw that there is no such thing as an inherently "bad" character trait, in the same sense that there is no such thing as an inherently "good" character trait; perfecting one's character traits means creating harmony within the soul, such that each faculty is granted its proper place and purpose.

In what follows, we shall deepen our study this matter. In order to do this, we will consider the relationship that exists between two very central human faculties - intellect and emotion, between man's spiritual aspirations and his inner being. We will begin by stating the principle in short, and then expanding upon it.

Just as, on a physical level, man's body is structured so that the head is higher than all of the other organs, conceptually too, it is the intellect that must lead and direct man's emotions. Without the guidance of the intellect, man would be no different than the beast of the field which is controlled by its drives and which lacks any capacity to impinge upon them.

This is a fairly simple principle, but it is liable to lead to a serious mistake. There are those who believe that putting the intellect in charge means suffocating the emotions and limiting their flow. The truth, however, is just the opposite. The intellect's job is to allow the emotions, and all of man's faculties, to flow freely, only that this flow must be directed into the correct channels.

We shall now expand a bit upon the relationship between intellect and emotion.

Every Emotion Needs to Be Given Direction
When a person rises in the morning, he faces many aims: in the family, in society, in Torah study. His integrity depends upon the fact that all of these aims are connected to a single goal. When a person knows what he wants to attain, his entire personality, his emotions, his aspirations, and all of his actions, also proceed toward this same goal.

Must the intellect always intervene? What if a person's emotions have a natural tendency to flow in a positive manner. What if he is an upright individual who is disposed to giving charity and helping others? Can such a person do without the rational intervention and channeling?

The sages address this question, saying, "Whoever has compassion upon the cruel will eventually become cruel to the compassionate" (Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Shmuel, 121). A person who is graced with compassion has indeed been granted a wonderful trait, and it is one of the three traits possessed by disciples of Abraham the Patriarch (see Avot 5:19). However, if compassion is permitted to act freely, unhindered by intellectual navigation, there can also be disastrous results. Such a person will act cruelly toward the compassionate. Instead of striking down the one who deserves such a fate, he will take pity upon him and let him live, and this will result in injury to the innocent.

We would assume that no character trait would more lends itself to being "set free" than compassion. Therefore, the sages employ compassion when teaching us that character traits must be placed under the control of the intellect.

The inner process which is liable to play itself out in a person who has not established his life's purpose and goal can be destructive. Rabbi Kook describes it thus: "When direction is lost, and the primary goal [of one's life] is uprooted from his intellect, the natural result is that the soul's emotions go to work inside of man. Instead of working toward a positive goal, they will be lost, and they will perform their task without any purpose but according to the awakening of physical drives, drives which do not possess independent reason outside of the fleeting pleasure of the senses."

Rabbi Kook explains that emotions are constantly at work inside of man. Even when a person acts without a clear goal in life, when he gets up in the morning without a clear idea of what he is going to do that day - emotions do not sleep, they continue to work: loving, hating, becoming frustrated, happy. The difference is that when a person has a goal in life, his emotions lend their support for the sake of the cause, but when there is no goal, the emotions themselves take over. When man is without any goal or purpose, he seeks out "the fleeting pleasure of the senses," in response to the awakening of physical drives, for emotion is very closely tied to the physical body.

Rabbi Kook continues to describe the destructive consequences of this process: "The soul of man loathes drifting aimlessly like a ship without a captain, and when it abandons the supreme objective which is illuminated by the Almighty, and distances itself from it, it will naturally seek out a goal. And, via its imagination, it will find a false goal, one which will bring it to ruin, for the objective [of this goal] is not [the achievement] of man's perfection and exaltation but his degradation and the depreciation of his lofty value."

Though the soul is attached to the body, each of us possesses an innate desire to have a goal in life, and therefore "the soul of man loathes drifting aimlessly like a ship without a captain." Such a person will feel deprived; this negative situation will cause him to seek out a goal for himself, and he will imagine that this is his goal in life. Such a goal can be a kind of idolatry for him, "his degradation and the depreciation of his lofty value," but he will imagine that this is his goal.

The process described by the rabbi is a dangerous one which is liable to lead to man's living without a goal. We might say that emotion is our bestial side, and it is a good side when it is subject to "the overseer," the intellect, which sets up the goal and directs all of man's life-forces toward that same goal. The clearer the goal, the better organized one's life is.

Letting the Emotions Flow
As said, putting the intellect in charge does not mean overpowering and suffocating the emotions. To the contrary, the intellect is like a king which gives meaning and responsibility to every member of his kingdom; it allows man's inner forces to flow naturally. Rabbi Kook writes, "It is not good to extend the power of the intellect to the point where it disturbs the course of natural emotions. Regarding such a step it is written, 'And do not make yourself too wise; why should you destroy yourself' (Ecclesiastes 7:16).
"Rather, it is proper to maintain the vigor and health of all of man's natural propensities, whether in body or soul, and to develop and perfect them. While the intellect must stand over them and direct them, it must not enter their boundaries, damaging or weakening them. Existing reality cannot be defeated, and the more that the intellect desires to oppress them to destroy them (i.e., the emotions), the more they will gain strength in a great torrent, rebelling against the leadership of the intellect. And great upheavals will break out against the leadership [of the intellect], particularly in the individual, but also in the family, the tribe, the nation, and all of humanity."

Intellect is not the be-all and end-all, and man is not a robot. If God has given us emotions, it is clear that they have a very important purpose: through them we live and make contact with the world. However, precisely because of this purpose, they are in need of an overseer who will direct them toward their desirable destination in a manner that keeps man from making contact with the outside world via jealousy, hatred, and despair.

Therefore, from time to time, a person must stop and take inventory, asking himself, "Via which traits and emotions do I come into contact with the world?" If all of the emotions are flowing through the proper channels, excellent. Let them flow. However, if it turns out that there are emotions which are also finding expression in the wrong places, the intellect must intervene and direct them properly.

Suffocating the emotions and attempting to change oneself from the very foundation is not healthy for the soul. If such an approach is adopted, character traits and emotions will not be permitted to fulfill their role. What's more, they will burst out from another direction, and the intellect will no longer succeed in maintaining order.

I sometimes encounter this phenomenon with Yeshiva students whose principle occupation is Torah study. One must remember that God has also given us a need to eat and sleep, to be connected to society, and to play sports. I have spoken with quite a few young men who are wrestling with all sorts of problems which result from their not allowing their natural self to find expression. A person must be aware of how much sleep he needs, how much food, hiking, and recreation he needs, for imbalance can have a negative effect on one's mental and physical constitution.

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