Chapter 8 of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah contains a marvelous scene, one we can profit from as New Testament people.
The context for the scene is the refoundation of Jerusalem by the Jews returning from exile in Babylon. The difficult task of rebuilding the walls of the city has been completed, and now the people seem to sense that they also need to fortify their “spiritual walls,” their relationship with God, as well. They ask Ezra the scribe to read to them the law of Moses.
It does not go well. Ezra reads the law, and the people weep intensely as they hear the words. We are not told why the people are sorrowful. But the text does tell us that not only Ezra, but also Nehemiah the governor and the assembled Levitical priests have to admonish the people to stop their wailing. The scene was a riot of sorrow. We may infer from the involvement of multiple authorities that quieting down the crowd was no easy task.
Yet Ezra does not simply silence the sorrow of the people. Instead, he admonishes them to change their emotional response to the law: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!”
Here’s what’s truly marvelous about the scene: Ezra’s command is actually heeded. The people soon begin “to celebrate with great joy” (Nehemiah 8:12, RNAB). Ezra seems to tell the people: “Quit crying. Be happy.” And they get happy.
The question naturally arises for those of us who are parents: Why doesn’t this approach work with our kids? I frequently instruct my 3-year-old to cease his wailing and lamentations at the dinner table, thus far to no avail.
Can we move emotions?
We know that emotions are not directly under our human control, so how could the assembled crowd in the Biblical story possibly have moved from sorrow to joy, from emotional weakness to emotional strength, on command?
In his 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford proposes what he terms an “erotics of attention.” Don’t get hung up on the strangeness of the name; the idea is an old one, cleverly repackaged by Crawford.
It suggests that we can exercise indirect control over our emotional states by shifting our focus from that which troubles us (typically ourselves) to more worthy objects, objects that have “intrinsic appeal.”
Crawford offers the example of a wife who experiences negative feelings toward her husband. She is annoyed by him. He bores her, tempting her to sadness with regard to her marriage. Yet, the wife does not give in to these feelings; she does not accept her lack of emotional strength.
Instead, as Crawford writes, “She observes a certain ritual: she says ‘I love you’ upon retiring every night.” In Crawford’s interpretation, the wife’s nightly declaration is not a lie, but something closer to a prayer. Telling her husband that she loves him reorients her. It draws her attention away from her own discontented emotional state, and toward something higher and more valuable: the marital bond itself. The wife finds new emotional strength through this reorientation.
Returning to the biblical text with fresh eyes, we can recognize a similar approach in the words of Ezra. He does not simply command the people to be happy, as I initially supposed. Instead, Ezra counsels them to transcend their sorrow by shifting their attention to the performance of certain actions: to eating the foods and drinks prescribed for the occasion, and to performing acts of generosity — to “allot portions to those who had nothing prepared” (Neh 8:10)
And it is precisely when the people have heeded Ezra’s advice and turned their attention to these actions that they begin to celebrate with great joy, to find strength through their active religious observance.
Don’t just will it, do it
Many things change in the shift from ancient Judaism to Christianity, but human nature isn’t one of them. If one experiences a Christian duty or commitment as enervating, the solution is not to wallow in misery and give up. Nor is the solution to attempt, through a supreme effort of will, to suddenly be cheerful about the whole business.
The solution is more direct and practical: up your Catholic game. Start receiving the sacraments and praying more. Practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Do something fun to celebrate the current feast day or solemnity. In short, focus on doing the right sort of actions, and the emotional strength will soon follow. One builds strength by doing the actions of the strong.