Monday, March 12, 2007

Ranking bad emotions

There's unlikely to be any "happy" to this post. Feel free to skip it.

I imagine a lot of us who watched Data's struggle over having/not-having human emotions wished we could tell him he wasn't missing much. (Non-geeks: this is about Star Trek: the Next Generation. Relax; I'm done now.)

So, what's the worst of the emotions? Desire? I gather the Buddhists would say so. Nonsense. Desire, in itself, is simply wanting to have something, and there isn't a thing wrong with it in itself. The object and the degree of desire tell the story. The same Greek verb epithumeĊ is used both of the flesh's perverse desires, and the Holy Spirit's pure desires (Galatians 5:17). Without desire, no one would eat, pray, get married, reproduce, converse, get a job, achieve.

Forbidden desire is pretty bad, though. Wanting something you can't have eats at the soul. For a Christian, this is exacerbated by the knowledge that all this energy is utterly wasted. You want it, you can't have it, you know it... so why are you still thinking about it?

Yet the "plus" side—for the practicing Christian, which should be but isn't a tautology—is that you do know where the lines are, and what to do. You must not pursue the desire. You will not have that object. Wanting it hurts, but your God-defined path is not in doubt.

So I can't rank it worst.

How about fear? It's a bad one. It can twist or empty or liquify your gut, make your palms sweat, dry your mouth, lock up your mind, paralyze you. It can sap your joys and lay you low. Unquestionably and (on an emotional level) quite literally, fear sucks.

But fear isn't reality. What you dread may not happen. It hasn't happened yet. Of course, that's the cheat of fear: it robs the is in view of the might-be. But I'd much rather fear harm to my family, or cancer, than experience either one.

So then, how many votes for guilt? Real guilt has the reality that fear lacks. Real guilt focuses on something specific, grabs you by the collar, slams you against the wall, and screams "You did it! This is your fault!" And Guilt is right. You look at it and know you're nailed. You can't pass the blame left, or right. There may have been complicating factors, there may not. It doesn't really matter. What matters is you did it, or you failed to do it, and now everything that comes from it goes on your bill.

Is there an "up" side to guilt? Well, yes. For one thing, guilt means your conscience is alive, and that's a good thing. I have known people (and lived under the presidency of one) who seemed to have no living, sane conscience, and that's a scary reality. A live conscience is a sign of health, and guilt is a sign of a live conscience. Inability to feel guilt is a sign of nothing good.

Also, by specifying real guilt, I am speaking of sin. And sin, while horrible, is forgivable. It is what Jesus' death was all about. Easter reminds us that He succeeded in atoning for sin.

Sin is also repentable. You can see how it was wrong, why it was wrong, learn not to repeat it.

Sin is also (often) reparable. We're called on to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance. We can labor to right what we made wrong, assuming we don't "deal" (= not deal) with it by renting a condo by that river in Egypt.

So while I loathe the feeling of guilt, I can't say it's the worst. Here is my candidate.

Regret. Regret looks at bad decisions, lost opportunities, wrong turns, sees all the fruits, and mourns. "Sounds like guilt," one might say. It isn't. Real guilt focuses on sin. You may or may not live in regret for sin; you may deal with sin decisively and in a godly manner, and be done with it. Regret may not even focus on sin.

Suppose you had a job offer and passed it by, then saw that you really really should have taken it. Was that a sin? By no means. But the whole rest of your life is affected by it, and it can't be undone or corrected.

It isn't hard to think of other situations: a relationship you ruined, a friendship you lost, a church you (pastor) mismanaged, a witnessing opportunity you bobbled, years you wasted in trivialities and aimless, self-absorbed wandering. None of these is specifically a sin. They're stupidities, follies, misfires.

So you can't exactly repent of them and ask to be forgiven them, per se. You certainly can confess them and pray about them, and try to learn from them. But that decision is still made. That friendship is still lost. That opportunity is still gone. That asinine, barkingly inane comment is still made.

Yes, you can learn from it. But that doesn't guarantee that the same opportunity will ever come by again. Or you will still have to live in the aftermath of that decision.

You can try to stop thinking of it. But that won't make it go away, the reminders will keep coming, and they will not sweeten with time.

Yep, regret is a good candidate. But I may be able to go one better.

Fear of regret. This adds the bonus of paralysis and the self-loathing that can accompany it. You are considering something very important, but it's high-risk. Decide wrongly, and you will live with regret for the rest of your life. To not decide is to decide not, so there really is no out. You will either regret making the decision, or you will regret not making the decision, or you'll be happy with the decision. But you fear you won't be happy.

So you shrink back from the decision, in the classic attraction-avoidance stalemate. But you know that this isn't a real out. You either will eventually have to decide, or your refusal to decide will itself default to a decision. The crisis will come and pass, and will leave you either happy or forever regretful.

But this focuses only on decisions, punctiliar things. Regret needn't be so specific. Regret can fasten on a specific wrong turn and see its wrongness, see the path that should have been taken. But not necessarily. You can regret a decision, a series of decisions, or an era—but still not know what you should have done. That's a delight. You see a wrong turn, but no matter how many times you go over it, you don't really know what you should have done.

This is a real delight. It has all the joys of regret, with the added extra that you haven't really learned anything, and so you'd probably make the same regret.

Yep. Regret and its suburbs. That's my pick.
Now I had that all worked out and polished, ready to publish sometime... and I come back to it and wonder if despair, or the feeling of utterly impotent sidelined irrelevant pointlessness are better candidates.

Such a fun subject. I think I don't want to re-think it.

Um, let's see... happy thoughts, happy thoughts... um....

My son got accepted into med school in Ohio! That's one.

My wife had the great idea of throwing a little surprise party for him to celebrate, and it went off really nicely. That's two.

Great sermon yesterday. That's three.

I get to preach this Sunday, DV. That's four.

There. Now I'll stop.


Pastor Steve said...

I think I would vote for regret. Specifically regret when you really hurt someone else spiritually with your sin. Sin is forgiven, but memories, regret, and those consequences unfortunately linger forever it seems in your life and theirs. That can be a tremendous weight to carry.

Kim said...

I think I would have to vote for fear, because even if the fear isn't grounded in reality, the ramifications of uncontrolled fear can be disastrous. After one has done something stupid because of her fear, she later regrets it.

Congratulations to your son. Good for him.

I'll be praying for you as you prepare for Sunday. I hope it will be available for me to listen to as well.

Trinian said...

I think I'd still vote regret over despair. In my mind, despair is usually associated with something current or near future - in that case, the situation that prompts the emotion can actually be relieved.
Regret has the horrible basis in the fact that the situation prompting regret to rear up is never going to go away or get better, since it is irrecoverably now part of your past life. Since the situation can never be relieved short of time and our own memory, the only real solution is to deal with the regretful heart itself who can talk about God's sovereignty all he wants but obviously has a hard time living with his entire being like it is true.

C.T. Lillies said...

Thats true, regret is really bad but...

The GOOD thing about regret, Dan, is that it prepares you for your next chance and if regret is bad enough you're going to want to make sure your next shot goes in the bucket.

"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

Fr. Bill said...

I concur that regret is the worst. All the others -- disordered desire, fear (including fear of regret), guilt, despair -- all of them have this hidden grace: that they may move us toward further grace and the one whose property is always to have mercy. Many times, they so impel us only when experienced in extremis, and there is no guarantee that we will pass through the door toward which they point. But, they do point toward that door, through which there is an escape.

C.T. suggests a bonus -- that regret makes us want to make sure that our net shot goes in the bucket.

Maybe so, but what if, as Dan says, endless reflection shows that you'd make the same regretful choice? It's often the case that what you do not know is the thing that produces regrets. Yet, ignorance is no balm.

For regret, so far as I know, and so far as I have experienced, there is no such door. I think the "fix" for regret is called comfort. But, if so, that is not an escape, so much as it is some sort of transformation of the regret itself.

I wish I could speak more from experience here, but as I have not yet been comforted of my own prime instance of regret, I can't say for sure. I know it's what I pray for -- comfort, that is. Until I receive that, I'm still impotent to comfort others with the same regret (cf. 2 Cor. 1:4).

Kay said...

First thing - congratulations to your son, Dan.

Second thing - regret is the worst, particularly regret about things not said, and most particularly about gospel words not shared.

g said...

Congrats on med school. My husband entered when he was 29 after a miserable career as a CPA. We had 2 children entering and 6 children one year before completion of residency. People thought we were insane but we have no regrets. Even the hard stuff (like our 18 month separation and almost divorce) we can look back and see what the Lord so graciously taught us. :-)

4given said...

Oops... I did it again. That was my comment up there and not my husband, Jon.