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Holy Roadblocks and the Intelligence of Emotions

upheavalsofthought_marthanussbaumIs there an intelligence of emotions, or do they just lead us blindly into brick walls or over cliffs? Shouldn’t we be strong and smart and able to make our own paths? Are emotional people, especially emotional men, who like to tell stories and create art somehow weaker than “real men” who are grounded in the real world?

I did not set out to ask this question today. The Spirit often leads by throwing up roadblocks and redirecting our path. Think of the pillar of cloud leading the Israelites south into the wilderness rather than north to the promised land, or the apostle Paul’s thwarted plans to go to Ephesus (read more about that here). We can either see this as a frustrating defeat or embrace it as a spirit-led adventure.

I had such an adventure this morning. The comfortable darkness enfolded me as I sank into the comfy chair nestled in the corner of my front room. The aroma of the freshly brewed coffee was just starting to tickle my neurons and the glow of my iPad screen illuminated my morning devotional path. My regular routine is to go to the daily scripture reading for The Journey, or the Narrative Lectionary, that is housed on my website and spend a few moments in quiet meditation.

That is when the roadblock popped up. My site was unresponsive. Grrrr… “Oh no,” I thought, “others on the Journey may be trying to access it. It can’t be down!”

Perhaps it was the pre-caffeine laziness, or an intuitive sense that the Spirit was leading, or a holy combination of both, but I decided to embrace the delay and explore the bookmarks along the top of my web browser. Scanning the list, my eye stopped on an old and long-neglected friend called Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. Maria spends her time trolling through the vast riches of the public library and writing stunning reviews of books that range from deep philosophical treatises to heart-warming and beautifully illustrated children’s books.

I scanned the front page and one post title captured my imagination

So I read it.

This article is just what I needed today. Nussbaum explores the human emotions and explains how important they are. The quotes that Popova highlights connected with me as I am currently taking the Law and Gospel class at the Seminary, teaching The Books of Moses class at church, and wrestling with my own journey of balancing my artistic self with the pastoral self with the academic self.

I am a highly emotional and imaginative creature, but often feel like my role in ministry does not allow me to be fully realized in that way. So often we put constraints on ourselves because of perceived restrictions by those around us or the expectations of our position in life.

Here are some quotes I found especially intriguing:

Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.


She goes on to explore the importance of narrative and creativity to the human experience.

The understanding of any single emotion is incomplete unless its narrative history is grasped and studied for the light it sheds on the present response. This already suggests a central role for the arts in human self-understanding: for narrative artworks of various kinds (whether musical or visual or literary) give us information about these emotion-histories that we could not easily get otherwise. This is what Proust meant when he claimed that certain truths about the human emotions can be best conveyed, in verbal and textual form, only by a narrative work of art: only such a work will accurately and fully show the interrelated temporal structure of emotional “thoughts,” prominently including the heart’s intermittences between recognition and denial of neediness.

Narrative artworks are important for what they show the person who is eager to understand the emotions; they are also important because of what they do in the emotional life. They do not simply represent that history, they enter into it. Storytelling and narrative play are essential in cultivating the child’s sense of her own aloneness, her inner world. Her capacity to be alone is supported by the ability to imagine the good object’s presence when the object is not present, and to play at presence and absence using toys that serve the function of “transitional objects.” As time goes on, this play deepens the inner world; it becomes a place for individual creative effort and hence for trusting differentiation of self from world.

The interesting part of this story is that, as soon as I was done reading Popova’s post, my website came back online.

Thanks be to God, to the Spirit, who throws up roadblocks to guide us to the sweet grass and cool waters–to the daily bread–that we need.

How have you experienced holy roadblocks like this? Share in the comments below.

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