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Why can’t we reason with pain and sin?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/24/21

Many of us get to adulthood without knowing how to manage well the body-mind-emotion-soul connection.

Have you ever said this to a person in distress? “Calm down!” Did that ever work?

Have you ever said this to a person in distress? “Your anxiety is irrational—stop it!” Did that ever work?

No? I didn’t think so. I’ve spoken those words to others, and I’ve had them spoken to me—and they never did the trick. Why not? Well, the answer pains me because I am an academic and a philosopher—I prize the life of the mind and exalt the rational. Precisely for those reasons, I run afoul of the Rationalist Fallacy, which states: “If only I explain myself clearly enough, people will understand me and agree with me.”

But I know from bitter experience over many years that this fallacy is the first step onto a trail of tears. The good intention of the rationalist is rarely realized, because as human beings we are more than just the rational faculties of our souls. Soul is intimately connected with body; consequently, we have emotions. Emotions, for better or worse, add color and temperature and energy (plus or minus) to our lives. Strong emotions can lead us to acts of heroic generosity, craven fear, selfish lust, or mindless violence.

In my previous essay, I noted that pain—especially emotional pain—can be a near occasion of sin. When we try to escape from the pain or numb the pain in ways that are destructive of ourselves and others, we open doors to sin that should remain closed. Well, why can’t we just reason our way out of that dangerous tendency?

The story theory

Astute observers of the human condition note that we don’t respond emotionally to events so much as we respond to the stories that we tell ourselves about the events. For example, someone may step on our foot—that’s physically painful. If we immediately tell ourselves the story that someone stepped on our foot to express hatred for us, we can easily imagine how that story triggers a response in us that can lead to sin. All the while, the event might have been unintentional, an event indicating clumsiness rather than malice, but the story we’ve told ourselves makes it the stuff of high drama.

Some suggest that if we change the stories we tell ourselves about events, especially painful events, we can manage better our emotional response to those events. That in turn can keep us from opening the doors to sin. Such an approach can work—but only up to a point. The story we tell ourselves about an event can trigger in us such a strong physiological response that we disable our ability to incorporate our higher reasoning abilities into our evaluation of events. We can put ourselves into a state of “fight, flight, or freeze”; that is, our body can dominate our response to an event to such a degree that the Law of the Jungle takes over. That can be a useful dynamic if we are in danger of losing our lives; it can be a destructive dynamic in most other contexts.

Our heart rate goes up, adrenalin starts pumping, our breathing rate increases—all very useful if we need to throw a punch or hide or run away. Countless times, I’ve seen friends miscommunicate, triggering a visceral rather than rational response. Fortunately, most times punches or rocks are not thrown at the person perceived to be a mortal threat. Instead, words—ugly, cruel, hurtful words—are hurled at the perceived danger.

I’ve witnessed people who love each other deeply say terribly destructive things to each other. I know that while they are screaming, “I hate you!” they are really saying, “I don’t feel safe with you—get away!” As a Jesuit trained in the discernment of spirits, I know that in such moments our spiritual enemy is right there to exploit the situation, prompting all parties to escalate the level of verbal violence.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

First responders say: “People don’t rise to the occasion—rather, they fall to the level of their training.” I’ve observed that most people enter adulthood without having been trained to manage well that body-mind-emotion-soul connection. Consequently, they experience and cause unnecessary pain and harm, thereby opening themselves up to avoidable sin.

There is a way of deescalating, a way of bringing oneself or another out of the “fight-flight-freeze” dynamic. And, I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t involve saying, “Be reasonable!” Learning how to deescalate can prevent avoidable harm, as well as avoid the near occasion of sin. 

When I write next, I will continue my series of reflections on pain and sin, discussing how to cycle down out of pain and into calm. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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Spiritual Life
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