Two articles appeared in the past week all about emotion and politics. One in “Scientific American” tries to explain the emotions underlying the last election, and conveniently does so in a fashion that makes Trump supporters look like jerks. (I just love this disclaimer, “Of course, not all people who support populism are antagonistic people.” And then he carries on “proving” his case.) [Is it really any wonder that my SA subscription lapsed years ago?] The other piece was Peggy Noonan’s weekly column contending that emotion has played too strong a role in our politics, especially in the last two presidential elections:
Our public political culture has given in too much to emotionalism. Last week at the George H.W. Bush funeral, which functioned as a two-hour portal into the old America, something was unsatisfying. Bush’s political life spanned 30 years. He had a way of seeing the world, thoughts and assumptions about it, a point of view, and these things had an impact on history. But most everyone speaking, and most in the pews, spoke not of the meaning of these things but of his personal qualities. That has its place, but we are talking history here, and the thoughts that produce it. The same was true at John McCain’s funeral.
We are highlighting emotions in our public life at the expense of meaning. And again, emotions are part of life and part of us, but only part, not the whole.
Which feeds into my thoughts this Advent Sunday in which we celebrate JOY. Seemingly forever preachers have been trying to separate joy and happiness, proclaiming joy as transcendent and spiritual in some fashion while happiness is merely an emotional reaction to circumstances. The Bible talks about joy a lot, but not so much about happiness. The Bible talks about joy in even the ugliest of circumstances. That certainly indicates that joy is something more than merely an emotional reaction. And that, I think, gets to the heart of the matter – joy is a matter of choice. That said, I am not at all sure that joy and happiness are separable. I think happiness flows from joy. Nonetheless, happiness is a reaction, joy is a choice.
The question is, how do we choose joy when everything around us is going to hell in a handbasket? How do we transcend our emotions?
Given that I am part Vulcan, like Spock, I tend to want to reason with my emotions. When something bad happens, I try to focus on the good in other places. When I am worried, I try to step back and put that worry into a context illustrating that the concern is overblown. But, as my wife is fond of reminding me and as I have experienced if I am honest, reason is often an insufficient response to emotion. Emotions are powerful things.
But when I consider the various places in the Bible that talk about joy in the worst of circumstances – they all mention a focus on God as opposed to our own limited viewpoint. The key to choosing joy it seems is choosing God. Once we understand there something greater than ourselves, and most importantly that He is good, we can find joy even when our temporal circumstances are awful because that joy flows from that eternal perspective. And then happiness flows from our joy. Joy is indeed transcendent.
Is it any wonder then that a society that is increasingly abandoning God is loosing touch with the transcendent and therefore descending into emotional turmoil? And further that that turmoil is expressing itself in our politics?
So if we are to tame the emotional overload that seems to be radicalizing our politics we need God to re-enter our politics. But maybe this time we should bring Him in a different fashion. We do not need to bring Him to “the issues.” Rather we need to bring Him to our perspective, and our lives need to reflect the joy that is inherent in that perspective.
Joy entered the world in a very special way in the events that we celebrate every year at Christmas. Let us resolve not just to find that joy in the context of the season or the circumstances, but in an eternal persective that creeps into every aspect of our being.