Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Agony of Desire: Thoughts on Emotions

I like comics, but I particularly like Batman. The one thing that Batman has produced, despite bad instantiations, is a rogues' gallery that is strangely believable. No, I'm not talking materially. We don't have eco-terrorists who can control plants or men who must stay sub-zero in order to survive. But we certainly understand the idealistic zealot who is willing to sacrifice the means for the ends, or the man, driven by cruel fate and vengeance, doing whatever it takes to rescue his wife. These are the character bios of both Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, fantastical, but quite relateable. Hell, we've even had perverted killer-clown ala. John Wayne Gacy that fit the mold of a Joker.

What makes Batman a compelling hero, as I've said elsewhere, is his own self-understanding. He always treads the thin line between hero and villain. He is barely not the insane cast of criminals that he battles against. It's what makes him so capable in defeating them. Because they are so alike, Batman understands them, many times understanding them than they understand themselves. Many of the villains, perhaps barring the Joker, do not understand the neurotic insanity driving them. The Riddler doesn't realize his own sense of entitlement and inadequacy drives him. Scarecrow can't see how he's merely a bitter academic. The Mad Hatter can't see how he's a control freak who thinks the Human psyche is another thing to possess. Two-Face can't see his philosophy of chance as a thinly veiled justification for his own anger. And I could go on.

What all of this gets at is the fact that we readily understand these characters. Maybe we don't want to admit it. But the truth is that it reflects a fundamental fact of Human nature. Desire is a great fire, one that warms as often as it burns. It can be the greatest madness, the most blinding insanity, that can come upon man. We might scoff at the stupid man who has an affair, destroying his life for what seems like nothing. But then the desire comes upon us. Some describe love as a prolonged state of temporary insanity. While I wouldn't say that's "love", it's certainly valid.

However, we're assaulted with an older, perhaps Protestant, doctrine that asserts that emotions are merely imagination, an undisciplined branch of reason. We need to tighten our belts, whip ourselves into shape, and be proper. This has translated into the stupid liberalism of today, where we think things and actions are somehow value neutral. In terms of sex ethics, sex becomes a completely value neutral action, not leaving any effects what so ever, as long as the people are consenting. But this is patently insane, otherwise why common-sense work-based ethics or the accepted concept of power-abuse when relations between teachers-students or employer-employee exist?

This seems to be the general mood of today, where, despite protest, these retooled liberal Protestant ethics are merely the collapse of Humanity into the will. One might chart a particular trajectory from some Calvinist theologies that centered the essence of God into His will. Hence, the dark center of God, imperceptible, are His Decrees. Anthropology reflected that in the mixed-results world of Early Modern Europe where reformed was the command of the day. In the secularized theology of today, we maintain our individual bubbles and guide ourselves through life with our choices, located in our wants. But beneath the intellectual veneer of the will lies the grumblings of the belly, something modern society dare not countenance. It seems we'd rather live in a two-dimensional cardboard world than contemplating the dark spaces of the irrational.

However, rather than living as a bohemian and embracing the irrational in Dionysian sickness, we ought to tame our emotions. This is not denying they're irrational, collapsing them as "random" stirrings of our mind, but this is also not saying that they are unaccountable. Instead, the features of our inner world are complicated. Our rationality, our emotions, our will, and our love all play a complicated game of interaction. The reason for this is our fallen state where all our parts exist in a state of disharmony. Reason and emotion do not symphonically co-exist, distinctly but differently, but are many times confused and at war.

The difference between Batman and his villains is that Batman's reason interrogates his emotions. He keeps himself honest. Have you ever tried to do that? It's hard work and it's agonizing. But, chasing your desires heedlessly is also incredibly painful. The labor of self-discipline is one that is strenuous, but the only way to stay sane.

Thanks be to God that He has liberated for the task! The Light of Christ shining upon us has awoken a new love, poured out upon us as the Holy Spirit, to begin the healing of our souls. While this Light is supernatural, the healing revelation of God as Christ into our lives, the functional application is natural. That is to say, Humanity was made for right-ordering, and so the process towards restoration is also a natural process. So it makes sense that a comic book character can mimic such a process, fantastically, with any dose of realism.

Batman is perpetually plagued and lonely, and such is sometimes the cost of tangling with our wants and desires and subordinating them for the good. Life is a cross, and as Christians, we ought to take it upon ourselves to understand that it is both a kind of death, but also the promise and hope of life. Such is what life is like when we grapple to bring in our emotions. St. Basil allegorically compared this task to Man's vocation to tame all wild beasts, and it is fittingly so. It is our vocation as Humans to bring our emotions into contact with reason. This is not to suppress the irrational and the emotional, but to keep them accountable.

The price of sanity is itself a kind of righteous insanity, so we're caught between two agonies. May God give us the strength to persevere in order to be free.

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