Unexamined Emotions Aren't Worth Feeling
Updated: Jan 30
The unexamined life is not worth living, wrote Socrates.
Socrates was the founding father of modern Western philosophy; he wanted to understand life. He spent countless hours interviewing people, asking them questions, one after another. Questions about life, death, and anything in between. Socrates wanted to examine life, and to examine life, he argued, you must examine your thoughts. That's because life, according to Socratic logic, is, first and foremost, a matter of the mind.
As important as it is, the Socratic method is not without flaws. One significant weakness is the belief that lies at its foundation: reason and logic are the only reliable ways of knowing. The problem is that such an approach reduces life to a mere cognitive construct, leading to the erroneous assumption that humans are nothing more than brain matter. (As if the brain is the only organ that connects us to the outside world.)
Science and human experience teach us that humans are more than intellectual beings; we are also emotional beings. Recent experiments suggest that emotions affect the way we think and make decisions.
That's because we not only think about life, we also feel it.
Recall those times in your life when you needed to make a quick decision; there was no time to consider all the pros and cons, to deliberate and reason logically. You had an intuition, a feeling of something telling you it's the right thing to do. Psychologists call this "snap judgements," hurried decisions made without deliberation. These types of decisions are a normal part of the human experience. They rely on "gut feeling," not logic.
I'm reminded of the story of Chelsey Sullenberger, the pilot of US Flight 1549. After losing the two engines, Sullenberger had to make a rushed decision about whether he should return to the airport or perform an emergency landing in the Hudson River. There was no policy, no step-by-step guide to follow, and neither was there time to flip through thousands of pages of procedural manuals. The pilot had nothing to rely on except his professional experience and "gut feeling." Sullenberger followed his instinct and performed an emergency landing, which turned out to be the right decision in the end. He successfully landed the aircraft in the water without losing a single member on board.
Sometimes, "gut feeling" is all we have.
At first hearing, Sullenberger's decision to ditch the plane should not have been trusted because it contradicted the commonly accepted and approved procedure for engine loss. A more reasonable, logical decision was expected, not a "gut feeling." It’s the lives of 155 people we are talking about!
But after careful investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled in favour of Sullenberger for making the correct judgment call (or “snap judgement”) to land on the river instead of returning to LaGuardia airport. The "gut feeling" proved to be the most reliable factor in that particular situation.
It turns out, feelings can be trusted.
Feelings are an important part of who we are as human beings. Emotions affect our reasoning and logic, guiding the process of decision-making. Scientists tell us there are at least twenty-seven distinct categories of emotions, each shaping our experiences of the world around us. Grief is one such emotion.
This "gut feeling" emotion tells us that something is wrong, that our psychosomatic system is under pressure. It's an emergency light on the dashboard of Sullenberger's plane. Grief doesn't fix anything; instead, it alerts us to the urgent need to pay attention to what is happening in our bodies and in our hearts.
Grief is our assistant in situations where the mind isn't helpful anymore, when reason fails us. In cases when there are no logical explanations for what had happened to our loved one the night before. Like Sullenberger, we rely on grief (not reason) to respond to the crisis deep inside our souls.
Sadly, grief is one of the least examined emotions. Although numerous studies were undertaken to understand grief and its mechanisms, this emotion remains largely unexplored on a personal level. We haven't learned to trust the "gut feeling."
When confronted with the unfamiliar feeling of grief, our knee-jerk reaction is either to passively ignore it or actively suppress it. We see the emergency light come up but don't take it seriously. We continue on our prior course, not realizing that our engine has failed and we are free-falling to the ground.
Think of your life: Is there an emergency light that needs to be examined? Perhaps you have been ignoring it all this time. It's time to get to know grief, time to examine it, and see what's going on inside and outside your mourning body. Grief needs to be explored and understood. Not in a scientific kind of way, but in a personal kind of way. Not in a rational kind of way; rather, in a relational kind of way. As a friend. We must learn to relate to grief, to trust it, to feel it. The unexamined life is not worth living, wrote Socrates. The same is true of the unexamined grief—
It’s not worth feeling.