The relationship between our desires for and pursuit of things in this world and our happiness, which is only fully achieved in God, our final end, is the topic of an ongoing discussion between my children and I. If God alone can make us fully happy and we should desire and seek him above all things, what does it mean when we desire something less than God? Can we pursue a created good without feeling guilty about not preferring God to all things? We often hear it said "follow your dreams." Can we do that without spiritual harm.*
Desires, Feelings and Emotions
Before we can answer the question about the relation of our desires for something that is less than God to our final destiny with God, some preliminary points need to be made. First, it is an aspect of our being created in the image and likeness of God that we delight, as God does, in His creation (including the fruit of human culture). So it is good to have a persistent desire to delight in a given creature and to pursue that delight. St. Thomas explains that this delight is the proper result (frui) of virtuous action. Since delighting in creation is an essential part of our being, it stands to reason that desires to delight in certain created realities are in themselves good.
This does not mean we can immediately pursue any good we desire. Our attractions and emotions are one of the important means God gave us to identify values in the world worth pursuing; but they cannot be the sole basis for our action. When, through our senses, we become aware of someone or something, we begin to discern the presence or absence of values in this someone or something. Once we identify a value or good in another, our urges and emotions begin to move us either toward or away from the object of our consideration.
Feelings do not respond directly to the senses, but to the interpretation "we" make of the senses’ data. There is a moment of interpretation (often not conscious) prior to the feelings we experience. The feelings themselves are accurate to the extent the interpretation is accurate. That can be the problem—our initial (semi-automatic) interpretation of the situation may either be wrong or incomplete. This initial interpretation needs to be verified with reality. Love at first sight occurs because one interprets the other as having certain values that one has registered as desirable. Yet, one has to get to know the whole person before determining whether and how those values are really present and if the other values the person has are also ones one can live with for the duration.
You will notice not all people identify the same values in the same created realities. Each of us, because of our background and choices, are fine-tuned to recognize and respond to certain values more strongly then others. Some of us take delight in some things, some in others. I may like Scottish music and you may like polkas. I am responding to values in Scottish music you are not fine-tuned to spontaneously identify, and you are responding to values in polka music that I, for whatever reason, am not sensitive to. Objectively speaking, both kinds of music and both sets of values are valid, yet only an impossibly well-rounded, sensitive person would recognize and respond to all sets of genuine values he encounters.
To the extent we interpret our experience accurately, we also accurately identify values. Our spiritual tradition points out that because of the effects of original sin our emotions are more or less unruly and rambunctious and cannot be trusted by themselves to ground our decision to actually pursue a perceived value, even if they could have before the Fall. What our feelings do is identify possible values for pursuit. It is up to our intellect to evaluate the situation so our will can move when it is appropriate.
Emotions can be misguided in two ways:
- They can move us into sinful actions (when we identify an evil action as a good one)
- or they can be inordinate, moving us to take action to pursue genuine values out of order, either before the proper time or at the expense of higher values, such as our relationship with God and our love of neighbor.
We also must distinguish between fleeting emotions, the impulse of the moment (no matter how strong) and a deeper, persistent desire for a certain particular created good. Fleeting emotions are less immediately trustworthy except for those with mature virtue. Deeper desires are usually in themselves more directly indicative of values to pursue. Of course, that does not mean we can’t see a Krispee Kreme doughnut shop while driving and, upon experiencing a very strong impulse to eat one of their creations decide on the spur of the moment to stop for a steaming hot glazed confection. Still, you wouldn’t want to do so if you were late for an important meeting, or on a health-related diet, or had only enough money in your pocket to buy healthy food for your children.
Am I being too suspicious of feelings? No. I am realistic about what role feelings play in our overall pursuit of the good. We can count on feelings to do what they are intended to do—give us preliminary information. It is up to us to interpret and evaluate that information and use it in an appropriate way to help guide action. Feelings help us identify values (goods). So, if we see something and experience an emotional reaction, it is because we recognize (without thinking about it) a value (or disvalue if the emotion is negative). The question then becomes, is this a value I ought to pursue right now (will it fulfill my vocation to happiness) or not? The feelings themselves are not false; they simply need to be properly evaluated before acting upon them.
How do we know which desires to pursue?
Here is the point: some desires are worth pursuing, others are not. So, how do we decide which desires to leave as veillities (unrealized wishes) and which desires to actively pursue? The answer can be found in Fr. Spitzer’s exposition of the Four Levels of Happiness in Healing the Culture. The pursuit of happiness must be made in an orderly manner, putting Happiness Level Four above Level Three, Level Three above Level Two, and Level Two above Level One. Happiness on the lower level cannot in the long run be achieved at the expense of the pursuit of happiness on a higher level.
To put a Gospel spin on it, we can pursue delight in a creature assuming our life is ordered to charity—love of God and love of neighbor. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matthew 6:33) "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." (Colossians 3:1) This has been expressed in the famous Augustinian principle: Love God and do what you please.
Of course, one contends with the fact that the gratification derived from the pursuit of Happiness Level Four, is for most of us, both less intense and less immediate than the gratification from Happiness Level One or Two. Even if we are well advanced in the spiritual life, consider how Mother Teresa spent most of her time in spiritual dryness. We may achieve a much stronger and intense "hit" of happiness by pursuing our dreams without considering how it fits into our overall life of charity. Yet, it is not the sign of a mature Christian to move from feeling to feeling, impulse to impulse. We must order our days and life to be a responsible adult Christian. If we follow our dreams at all costs, we may wind up doing more damage to ourselves and others than good.
We also contend with the fact that our desire for something less than God will not always be fulfilled in the time or manner we hoped. To order our lives to God and neighbor, and then pursue our personal goals sometimes results in a situation where we seem to give up something we desire strongly for the sake of a higher level of happiness. If we place our heartfelt petitions and desires before the Lord, they often appear to be ignored, or even rejected because things do not unfold as we hoped. We don’t get the dream job. We knocked ourselves out to prepare for an audition and someone else, without any apparent effort, walks out with the part. We’ve saved for years for our dream home in the country, and a child gets a serious illness, draining our assets.
Does God, our infinitely loving Father, sometimes not answer our prayers? How can this possibly be if he loves us? After all, "Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (Matthew 7:9-11). Or is the only gift for which this is true is the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the version of the saying in the Gospel according to St. Luke states? "[H]ow much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:13). Is God himself the only good thing God will give us without qualification? Are we to despair of ever receiving from Him any lesser good in response to our desires and petitions?
Tradition witnesses to the fact that God does not permanently deny us any of our heart’s desires, even if they are less than God himself, unless they are sinful. How can I say this, since so many specific prayers seem to go unanswered? We best receive the goods we desire when we seek them in proper order. The problem is our impatience and lack of trust in God’s love.
Fr. Spitzer points out the need for patience when praying for relief of suffering. "I frequently have the inclination to tell God, ‘Here's how to resolve this fearful situation. I took the liberty of outlining a fourteen-step plan so you could clearly see how best to make good come out of this situation. I also thought you wouldn't mind my including a timetable for the plan along with it.’ Needless to say, God's plan leads to places that I cannot lead myself and respects other people's freedom and needs. Not being God myself, I am generally unable to accommodate all of this, and so God sometimes allows my plans to fall on hard times (thank God)" (Healing the Culture, 116).
Our tendency is to act on a good impulse or desire before the "fullness of time," making an action unfruitful. We short-circuit our own life in the Trinity by impatiently acting. We must first discern when God has put all the pieces in place for our actions to be fruitful (frui). The only way to prevent unfruitfulness from happening is to humbly go before the Lord and pray the famous Ignatian Suscipe prayer:
"TAKE, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. Thou hast given me all that I am and all that I possess: I surrender it all to Thee that Thou mayest dispose of it according to Thy will. Give me only Thy love and Thy grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will have no more to desire. Amen."
Then, while continuing to respond to our psychological desires as the demands of charity and justice permit, wait and seek the signs of the movement of God in the world, with which we can cooperate in our actions.
Fr. Spitzer asks, "But if God wants to help and is helping whenever we ask, why doesn’t he help a little more quickly? Why do we have to wait and live in ambiguity?" (Healing the Culture, 185).
The answer Spitzer gives is, "that unconditional love requires that four objectives be actualized in every situation of suffering:
1. that suffering will be eventually alleviated
2. that human freedom be respected
3. that love and goodness be optimized for the individual
4. that love and goodness be optimized for the world.
If the unconditionally loving God is going to achieve these four objectives in a finite and conditioned humanity living in a finite and conditioned world he will not be able to actualize the first objective instantaneously (that is why the word ‘eventually’ was used)" (Healing the Culture, 185).
Will my achieving my desire now harm others or deprive me of their due good? Do I always know the answer to this question? Does not my insistence of God being "unfair," when I don’t get my way, belie a lack of trust in God’s generous and providential love?
There are several passages in the Letter of James highlighting this principle, especially the famous exhortation to patience: "Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:7-8). "God gives to all generously and ungrudgingly" (James 1:5). God does not deprive us of any good.
To be fair, even the psalmist appears to recognize that we can feel abandoned by God’s love:
Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" [Selah]
And I say, "It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed"
Yet, what we experience is delayed gratification, not the absence of gratification.
What about spontaneity? Spontaneity is the subjective face of the freedom of the Spirit St. Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Such freedom is our calling; not our birthright. The capacity to respond, freely and spontaneously to the actual good in a situation results after time, effort, and grace have matured in the growth of virtue. Spontaneity is the desire of youth, but it is the right of the mature because spontaneity is a fruit of cultivated virtue.
Feelings actually increase in value as one grows in virtue precisely because growth in virtue involves, among other things, a greater and greater ability to quickly interpret reality accurately (thus making feelings more accurate reflections of reality). This is why the virtuous person is able to act more spontaneously in doing the good than the vicious person who decides to do the good. This is also why the letter of James, following the example of Solomon in I Kings 3, exhorts us to ask for wisdom, which God gives ungrudgingly. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him" (James 1:5).
Some Practical Suggestions
The ability to respond well to the various feelings, emotions, and desires dominating our lives needs to be cultivated. Practically speaking, how can we decide when to pursue a "dream" and when we must for a day or for a time put off gratification? How can we develop the virtues that help us avoid "overreacting" when the demands of charity and justice appear to interfere with our pursuit of our dreams? The essential component is to look at our life and determine when the pursuit of a creature will interfere with more important business of life—the demands of justice and charity.
Here is a daily exercise one might engage in: In the morning prayerfully look at your day. Ask the Lord and yourself, "What are the demands of charity and justice today? What is my duty to God and neighbor, especially those God has put close to me, for whom I have a greater obligation (family, friends, and the poor)? What are my civic and financial responsibilities (since both are a matter of social justice)?" Remember, we are not putting duty before happiness, but higher happiness (which is often less immediate and intense) above lower. Once we identify and commit to those duties, we may ask which of our other desires we can pursue and how. In any case, we usually want to put our deeper, more persistent desires ahead of our desire for immediate sensual or ego gratification.
Once we order our day, we will be able to examine ourselves in the light of grace to see how well we fare in the ordering of our life. The twice daily Examen has been important in Ignatian spirituality. We ask, "Did I keep my pursuits in order? Did I react impatiently to interruptions coming from the demands of justice and charity?" If so, we seek forgiveness, including frequently in the Sacrament of Penance. The just man falls seven times a day. The development of virtue takes time.**
How we react to interruptions is one of the most important clues to whether our pursuit of a created good is disordered. Ask yourself this question, "What happens while I am pursuing my ‘dream’ when I am presented with unexpected demands of charity or justice?" It is natural in such a situation to experience frustration, even if the demand is worth the trouble to interrupt our immediate goal.
How do we react to those feelings of frustration? Do we respond in anger, even rage? Do we consider the interruption (which comes from the providential hand of a loving God) to be substantially preventing us from achieving happiness? Do we lose our cool? If so, we (me, for instance!) need to further develop the virtues of patience and trust in God’s providence. God will fulfill our every desire, even for things less than himself, in due order. The delay will not keep us from happiness; it will give an even deeper delight (frui) in creatures because we pursue them in light of God, the ultimate source of all delight.
If we practice these exercises regularly in the context of an active prayer and sacramental life, over time we will become more aware of God’s movement in our lives. We will be better able to discern those created goods that we may fruitfully pursue (frui) and those created goods we ought to set aside, at least for the time being. The basic principle is to pursue our dreams and our desires patiently and with trust in God’s love, in the context of a life dedicated to love of God and love of neighbor.
*I have found some answers to this in the book, Healing the Culture, by Fr. Robert Spitzer, coupled with some insights from Karol Wojtya’s Love and Responsibility, from behavioral-cognitive therapy gleaned from the work of Gregory Popcak, and from the Letter of James.
**I strongly encourage the form of the Examen promoted by Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., of Fordham University. For a detailed description see: The Examen
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