Another from the Mailbag – What Emotions Do We Keep?

Got an email from Drew that also warrants posting.

i’ve been perusing your archives and i must say that i enjoy reading, and agree with, virtually every point you’ve made. personal responsibility, something which has obviously gone the way of the dodo, if it ever found homes in the minds of the masses in the first place, appears to be both a theme of your work and a complaint i regularly voice to anyone who will listen. that being said, i was reminded of bishop butler, if memory serves correctly, who believed that logical precision should be held above the interpersonal relationship (to be fair, i’m grossly over paraphrasing butler), as i was reading your posts. i read an essay he wrote back in school concerning the fact that he would rather sacrifice his mother, if she had committed some crime, than sacrifice his ethical underpinnings and logical rigor. the interesting thing about being human is the process of taming the oft-volatile mix of reason/emotive impulse. were we cold, calculating robots, though the world’s current problems resulting from the caveman mentalities that we cannot seem to shake from society at large would probably be solved, what minds would be around to care? to get to my point, as you often allude to the more fundamental point that anything done ought to be to secure as much time for meaningful interpersonal relationships as possible, in the form of the offhand remarks concerning your wife and child, my question to you, and the answer to which you might want to consider putting up on the site or in some book you’re working on, is what of the caveman mind ought remain and be encouraged to flourish? thanks for taking the time to post on the site. it’s always nice to know that others share the same passion for the belief that virtually anyone can become the master of one’s own destiny, and that it requires little more than a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions and the direction of one’s more enlightened mental development.

Despite the fact that Drew went to the TS Eliot School of Writing Style, he poses a great question. Let me rephrase it. If the caveman mind causes so many problems, what, if anything, should we leave intact? I write about this a bit in my book but the basic answer is the love parts. The evidence seems to suggest that love evolved just like all other emotions – to get us to do things that made us more likely to reproduce. However, in my view, it’s the very best thing about life. Who cares why we’re lucky enough to experience it. That’s the point, really.

We, as humans, come to the show with hundreds of thousands of years of genetic baggage. The survival skills of our species have proven so superior that survival is not a concern for most of us, at least on this side of the world. We are now to the point where we have access to heretofore unimagined areas of solution space, and we have the tools to explore them. We are finding that our species is hooked on status like crack. We are finding that our species is obsessed with physical appearance. We are finding that the human mind is a devoted tabulator of favors done and favors owed. Most importantly, we are finding that we have the power to control what goes through our minds and to what extent we act on the emotions that were designed to motivate us.

But love is tricky. Bertrand Russell’s musings on love are well worth reading. His basic idea is that love without mutual respect and admiration is not worth having in most cases (at least in terms of romantic love). That means love itself isn’t enough. So, while I think we should hold on to love, I think we should be deliberate about who we allow ourselves to love and be loved by. But, if we get it right, I think we are well-served if we let our love run wild. This, I believe, will never steer us wrong.

Aside from love, I think it’s important to recognize that our emotions are our primary motivators. I remember a drunken argument I had with a Star Trek fan who tried to tell me that Vulcans use reason entirely to motivate themselves. Always willing to entertain a silly argument, I kept asking why one would build a space ship or educate a child. The answer was always, “to better this or that.” But for what? If you have no emotions, how do you know that it is better for children to live than die? If you have no emotions, why would you ever get off the couch? The point is that I don’t think we should be talking about doing away with our emotions. I’m talking about understanding them so that we can harness them rather than be victimized by them.

For example, it is very clear from history that competition and accountability bring out the very best in mankind. But why? Wanting to win in competition obviously has its roots in the quest for status. Accountability, to a lesser extent, is the same thing – public awareness of deficiency is always to be avoided in the caveman mind. So, we should hope to embrace our competitive side. This is how we improve ourselves. The key is to make sure that we don’t tie our self-opinions to how we do in contests – even if we’re Tiger Woods or Lance Armstong.

I’m an amateur cyclist – so amateur that I can’t finish in the pack of a Cat 5 race (for you cyclists out there). But I love it and I try every year to get better. I put myself in situations where I have to compete – sometimes in races; sometimes just to the top of a hill or to end of a street, but I’m competing. No matter whether I win or lose, however, I always go home feeling the same about myself. I am who I am, and nothing I did on my bike today changes that. It’s what I think of as a healthy disconnect between ancient emotions and modern self-esteem.

At the end of the day, our emotions can help us along or they can do us in. One thing is for certain – they’re with us for the long haul. We’d best get to know them to make the best of the time we have. Thanks Drew. PS – Get yourself a shift key. They’re cheap.


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