What I address here is the primacy of emotions. It’s more than and distinct from emotional intelligence because of the informational and motivational meaning that emotional data provides. They tell us that something is important, but also reveal a good deal about the values at stake that make things important.
Emotional meaning is given intuitively. We sense that something is amiss or that everything will be all right. We feel that a pattern of behavior or social situation is off or unhealthy, or that it feels good, invigorating. We have the sense that a course of action being considered is not the right thing to do, it’s wrong, or that it feels right and true to our core beliefs.
Of course, the value-based feelings that incline us to believe and act are not infallible. We may miss something. Our reactions might be affected by stress, strain, and fatigue. Or perhaps we could simply benefit from examining and understanding more clearly what our feelings are telling us. In any case, it’s often prudent to reflect upon our intuitive sense of things before acting on it.
Learning from Our Emotions
Disregarding our emotions and felt sense of a situation could deprive us of important insights into what is the good, right, or proper thing to do. The simple truth is that we intuitively feel the importance of many issues or risks long before we rationally know them. So even when we don’t know why we’re troubled and hesitating to affirm an action, that in itself may be reason enough to pause, talk, and reflect.
As we begin to respond this way to our felt sense of concern, or even our enthusiastic sense of support for action, we become more skilled in learning from our emotions. They are inherently more complex and do not have all the clean edges of our more familiar rational thoughts and words. To cultivate more fluency in the rich, complex, and nuanced language of feelings you may want to read some poetry.
Poetic Revelation (truth)
Let’s begin by considering the evocative emotional experience of reading a classic Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall. It begins this way:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
We learn that the stone wall separates farms and farmers by virtue of unquestioned norms of property ownership, privacy, and social separation. The “mischief” in Frost challenges these norms:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
But nature does not bend to their will; it gives these men a new opportunity to affirm or question their man-made norms every year. Ironically, they conspire to keep the wall between them:
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
Emotional Meaning and Judgment
Emotions move us, and they can cut both ways. If I am feeling discouraged, disadvantaged, or unfairly treated, I may generate feelings of envy and resentment toward others. On the other hand, if instead I am feeling included, respected, and encouraged, my judgments of others may be more positive and my decisions to be helpful more energetic.
My resistance to an idea may consist in worries that simply need to be aired, discussed, addressed. And after doing so, the resistance may melt away; indeed, I may discover rising levels of motivation to actively support the idea. The reflective examination of our feelings, the data we know through our emotions, takes us further into the matter at hand and almost always makes us more discerning.
Judgments formed by the use of reflection upon emotional meaning are usually better, smarter, and more justifiable to others. And isn’t the ability to explain and justify our judgments a good thing, empowering, and motivating? And even when a process of reflection arrives at something less than a full-throated endorsement by all, isn’t it better for people to have reasons for an action?