Emotion, Desire, and Life Choices

If you don’t get it, read on…

For this post I’m taking off my academic philosopher hat to gloss over fine distinctions I might otherwise make. I want to do philosophy for las masas. Wherever I use ’emotion’ in this entry, don’t think of it in a technical sense. I just mean any of drive, passion, emotion, strong motivating desire, and so on. The context throughout should make it clear. 

Emotions activate the imagination and enable us to see a world where we commit ourselves to embracing the spirit of that emotion in perpetuity. Let me give you an example. When I took my first philosophy class ever, I fell in love with the content. But I didn’t see myself as ever being a philosopher or teaching. 

It was my second professor that opened my imagination to a career in philosophy. We’ve all experienced such moments and it’s nearly impossible to put into words. That moment where you’re utterly filled with awe and passion for something. When it hits, it hits hard. You see your entire life vividly unfolding along that new path as though it were actually happening. 

I was just a second year student. But I saw myself in the classroom teaching philosophy. I saw my students–both fascinated and perplexed by philosophy. I saw myself as I saw my professor: wise, kind, and patient. I saw myself fulfilled everyday. I saw the possibility. I saw a possible world. I felt what it was like to live there. I was there. 

In the context of important decisions, this is the value of emotion: It shows us our possible lives in a way a spreadsheet never could. But those lives only remain possible to the extent that we nurture the original emotion and sense of awe that first opened the window to them. 

(Note: I’m using positive emotions to illustrate but negative emotions have just as much value in the same respect: Negative emotions can show us what worlds to avoid and why. They show us what worlds await as the consequence of certain choices. I’ll stay with positive emotions for simplicity.)

Let’s go back to the familiar Sartrian tale of the young student who, during the German occupation of France, must decide between joining the French Resistance to avenge his brother’s death or staying with his mother who lost both her husband to treason and her only other child to the Germans. How does he decide what to do? Make a spreadsheet of the ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ multiplied by their respective probabilities then weigh the outcomes against each other? Suppose, instead we tell him to look into heart. What do you feel? Is it the love for your mother or is it the thirst for revenge?

The respective feelings give him insight into the world he’ll inhabit when he choses according to one or the other. 

If the thirst for revenge overwhelms but he stays with his mother, he’ll resent her and they’ll both be unhappy. He is estranged from the world he wants to inhabit. If his love for his mother overwhelms but he leaves seeking revenge, he’ll be miserable thinking of his poor mother on her own. Again, he finds himself alienated from the world he desires. He must act according to, not against his emotion. 

Is that it? you ask. Is this is the culmination of hundreds of hours of studying philosophy? The bullshit platitude “Just do what you feel, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan”? I could have spent $2, 000.00 on a special weekend with some new age self-help guru hack and learned the same thing without having to actually read anything. Why are you making me read? Just give me the answers! Stop making me work! …

No, that’s not it. 

For an emotion to have lasting value as a decision-maker it must continue to be nourished–not merely in thought but in action. The possible world into which it first gives a glimpse must be manifested through action. Otherwise, the emotion–that world’s progenitor–wilts along with it.

To repeat: the emotion lets us see what is possible. But that possible world closes when it lingers only in the imagination. We are left standing in a barren landscape drained of passion. The path leading back to the original fork, unrecognizable and concealed. To say that an emotion guided us rightly we must live according to that emotion.

And so the relationship status between decisions, emotions, possibility, and guidance reads “it’s complicated”. An emotion guides my decision by revealing the possible. The possible becomes real and is sustained through action in accordance with the original emotion. I say I was rightly guided when I live according to the original emotion and embrace that world I construct in its spirit. 

The emotion, however, doesn’t sustain itself. I must sustain it through actions characteristic of it. I must build that possible world as it was revealed to me. And as the possible becomes manifest I choose to sustain the original emotion–and hence my commitment to the world I’m constructing. 

Or I respond with a new emotion, one that reveals new future possibilities and the new forks they bring. 

There is no guarantee my future self will feel what I feel now about the world constructed in my current emotion’s name. It’s a matter of probability. I can’t know beforehand. To speak plainly, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. And so, emotions, as I have been speaking of them, ought not on their own be appealed to. This much seems obvious. They are valuable in that they give us the best available insight into what a decision in one direction could be like. Our choices are presented to us in a way a spreadsheet never could. But then we are faced with the impossible task of knowing whether our desire for a possible world will be sustained once it is manifest.

This may appear an insurmountable task and will no doubt be a probabilistic affair. But probabilistic isn’t the same as random. All of us have some sense of what sorts of things have enduring value. If an emotion encourages us to a world devoid of such values perhaps it’s a world we ought not to construct…although in some cases it might be fun for while! (See: Ami’s pre grad school life) Indefinitely honoring an emotion that sustains one such world is a mistake but feeling otherwise once we are there is a good thing. Our new emotions show us a way out…or at least tell us to get out. And hopefully we learned a thing or two while we were there. That counts for something. Right? 

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