On Deciding…

We live in a world dominated by feelings. That wouldn’t be much of a problem, except that this feeling-dominated world thinks it’s rational. A feeling-dominated world that thinks it’s rational demeans the opinions of religious people because they are “irrational,” but it demeans those opinions for irrational reasons. Feeling-dominated people do not know how to think. Their feelings do not inform them when they (feelings) are not adequate for guiding a decision. Feelings nearly always disguise themselves as rationality.

Things are not as they are because suddenly millions of people decided to abandon rationality and embrace emotion as the standard on which to base decisions. Most would not even recognize that this is the state of things. But we are the society G.K. Chesterton warned us about in chapter 3 of Orthodoxy, which is entitled The Suicide of Thought.

For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin.

That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own…

This skepticism about the mind and thinking began in our universities and students learned it from professors and then went out to become “culture creators” — those working in the fields of science, philosophy, literature, the arts, and other fields concerned with the nature of reality. “The revolution” occurred in this country in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was during that time that “the thought that stops thought” became dominant. Once philosophers accepted the possibility that the human mind cannot accurately comprehend reality, it was a very quick step to complete subjectivism. If I cannot comprehend reality, then reality is for me whatever I experience it (or feel it) to be. Decisions therefore cannot be based on any objective reality, but only on my subjective experiences and feelings. I can have one “truth” for me, and you can have another totally opposite “truth” for you. Both can be true, because truth is individual. There is no truth that applies equally to everyone at all times and in all places. This philosophical thinking (that has probably already alienated most of my readers) produced our current ways of thinking and making moral decisions in America. And in my opinion, that is not a good thing.

As a pastor I speak all the time with people who are in a frightening position. They are charged with the responsibility of making rational decisions for their lives (doing what is “best”), and yet have almost no understanding of how feelings and rationality are different and how they guide us in different ways. The reason this is frightening is because decisions have consequences. This is one of the ways we know there is an objective reality that exists outside our own minds! Dallas Willard says that reality is best understood as what you run into when you make a wrong decision. In other words, every decision we make will have consequences (or, just as real, benefits) in the real world.

So what does a person mean when he says, “I’m deciding…” or “I’m trying to make a decision”? I would like to assume he means that he’s bringing rational thoughts to bear on a set of circumstances that he is seeking to understand better and will ultimately be required to act on. But this isn’t what most people mean when they say, “I’m deciding.” What most people mean is, “I’m trying to figure out how I feel about this.”

I spoke with a person today in this very position. She has to make a difficult decision that is going to create huge ripples in her life, no matter what she decides. Her problem is not that she’s having a hard time deciding — that would be expected given the gravity and difficulty of the decision. Her problem is that she keeps thinking she has decided when she in fact has not. She keeps mistaking “feeling” for “deciding.” She will say, “I have decided that this is what I’m going to do,” but what she actually means is, “This is how I feel.” And of course, since it’s a difficult decision, and feelings change frequently, she often feels differently within the hour. And then she gets confused and says, “What’s happening here? I thought I had decided this, but I guess not.”

She is expecting her decision to be reflected in her feelings. She thinks that deciding something will make her feel a certain way. When her “decision” doesn’t have a permanent effect on her feelings, she figures she must have not really decided at all. My friend is doing the right thing in making up her mind — in just deciding what is best and going for it. The problem is that a couple hours later, when her feelings are no longer on board, she mistakes her changed feelings for a changed decision. She says, “I had decided this, but now I’m not so sure.” What she should be saying is, “I decided this. I felt it at the time and I don’t feel it now, but either way, here’s what I’m going to do.”

Feelings do not have power to control our decisions unless we let them. And to allow feelings to control decisions is extremely foolish and begging for trouble. After all, we often feel things we should not feel: attraction to people other than our spouse; petty jealousies; unjustified anger; regrets over things we can’t change; self-deprecation, etc. These feelings are normal, but they are not rational — i.e., they are not in our best interests. If we go around acting on these feelings all the time, we will mess up our lives and the lives of many others in the process. In other words, we feel irrational feelings, but should not actually act on them.

My friend keeps getting the cart before the horse, and allowing her feelings to control her. She wakes up feeling a certain way and calls it a decision. Two hours later she’s feeling differently and so believes she must not have decided anything at all. And as long as she doesn’t understand the difference between feeling and deciding, this will in fact be true.

This is because the main way we know we have decided something is that we stop deciding. I may have deep anxiety over whether or not to purchase a certain vehicle, but at some point I make a decision. Once the decision is made, my feelings may continue waffling, but I follow through with whatever course of action I have decided on. I stop deciding. I choose to act regardless of what I may feel. If I base my decision on feelings, I stand a good chance of deciding wrongly. I also stand a good chance of deciding one way right now and then a different way 30 minutes from now when my feelings change. And of course my feelings WILL change.
One reason I’m struggling to decide in the first place is because my feelings keep changing! There is only one hope for me to get out of the way of my swinging feelings as they attempt to bat me every which way, and that is to make a decision and then stick to it, come what may.

Let’s suppose that a man is having deep anxiety about whether to propose to a woman. And let’s suppose that ultimately he decides to go ahead and do it. And let’s suppose that she says yes, but the next day he begins to have anxiety again. Was a decision actually made? Yes. Feelings do not have real consequences, but decisions do. This man is now engaged to be married not because he felt like getting engaged, but because he decided to propose and make it happen! The question is when he begins having anxiety, what does he do with it? He’s engaged and having anxiety. He was having this same anxiety yesterday, before he was engaged. Is he now to assume that his anxiety is a sign that he should not have proposed? Of course not, because if he assumes that and breaks off the engagement, it’s only a matter of time until the pendulum will swing back the other way and he will again feel calm and assured about being engaged. Only now his potential bride may not share his enthusiasm. His best bet is to stay the course, unless new evidence can be brought forward showing that his decision to propose was premature or foolish.

Getting back to my friend, she would make a decision, but when her feelings changed a few hours later, she would wonder, “Why do I feel this way? I thought I made a decision.” She expected her decision to put a stop to the pendulum swing of emotions. The truth is that decisions don’t stop the pendulum swing, decisions just help us to not be knocked over by our emotions any more. As long as she continued to be knocked over by her emotions, she had not in fact decided anything at all but was basing her “decision” solely on emotion. When we do that, we will ultimately “decide” not based on what is rational and in our best interest, but based on whatever emotion feels strongest, or on the flip of a coin when we get to where we can’t bear to be kicked around by our emotions any longer.

A decision is something that keeps us from acting on the random, irrational, and willy nilly cues we get from our feelings. It’s okay for decisions to be informed by feelings, but decisions should not be based on them. In order to understand this, we must understand what we can reasonably expect from both feelings and decisions.

We can expect our feelings to be a gut-level guide to things that may or may not be best for us. Sometimes we get uncomfortable in situations it’s best we avoid. But we must bring rationality to bear on this, for we often get uncomfortable because of our background, lack of familiarity with certain situations, or even because of skills we lack in dealing appropriately. We should not discount our feelings, but nor should we crown them king. We can be grateful when feelings feel good and enjoy it while it lasts. We can, and should, use those good times to prepare ourselves mentally for the swing, because no good feeling will last forever. I repeat, NO good feeling will last forever. This includes romantic good feelings, physical good feelings, spiritual good feelings, sexual good feelings, financial good feelings, and any other good feeling you can think of. None of them will last forever, so we should enjoy them while they last, and expect that they will eventually pass. Sooner or later, they all do. The one thing we should never do is suspect that, when our feelings change from good to bad, we should reverse a decision we made when things felt better. This is almost always the wrong thing to do, and almost always for the wrong reasons.

What of decisions? What can we expect from them? We can expect decisions to be our guides and things we can base our future on. As I said earlier, it’s okay to take feelings into account when we make decisions, but we should never base decisions on feelings or allow changing feelings to cause us to question whether we made a right decision. Ultimately, we can expect our decisions to serve as containers for our feelings. Nearly twenty years ago I made a decision to marry my wife Christy. That decision has served as a container for a lot of feelings for me since then. Because of that decision I have experienced feelings of love, of desire, of anger and frustration, joy, peace, security, and fear. All those emotions and more have come out of a decision I made to enter into a marriage relationship with Christy. Our decisions guide and direct our emotions and create proper boundaries for them. This is essential, because our emotions don’t know any boundaries. You may be a married man having feelings for a single young girl in your office. You will either make some decisions that will contain those feelings up front, or they will eventually dominate you and ruin your marriage and your life. You may be a middle-aged woman having strong feelings of dissatisfaction with what your life has become. You will either make some decisions about healthy ways you will express and channel that dissatisfaction, or it will eventually dominate you and have potentially disastrous consequences in your life. You may be a young graduate, eager to climb the corporate ladder and make money. You will either make some decisions about healthy ways you will express your desire for success or that desire will overtake your life and lead you down some destructive paths. You may be angry at your neighbor for something he said or did. You need to make some decisions about what to do with that anger or it will eat you up and possibly have far more negative consequences in the life of your neighbor than you intend right now. Decisions are the containers for emotions.

Our decisions are meant to guide and direct our emotions, which have no inherent boundaries and recognize no stopping point. What’s the emotional stopping point for the man who has a crush on this young girl? Sex with her in her apartment or in some hotel — his marriage and family be damned. And then sex with her again and again and again until he gets caught (leaving him devastated), or she cuts off the relationship (leaving him devastated), or some other awful consequence brings it to a close (leaving him devastated). In other words, the emotional stopping point is not to stop. I’ll leave you to work through the rest of my examples and ask that question and answer it on your own for each.

People are in chaos because they allow emotions to control decisions, and allow decisions to be directed and undone by emotions. Until we realize the unique place of both decision and emotion, and allow each to do in our lives what it is meant to do, we can have no firm foundation for living. That’s why religion is essential in human life. Religion does not tell us how to feel, but what to do – in other words, what decisions to make that will serve as containers for healthy emotions throughout life. For example, the Bible tells us to avoid adulterous relationships. If we disregard that we will develop attachments (emotional and/or sexual connections — feelings) to people that have no possible legitimate expression and will cause frustration, resentment, and pain.

It is my opinion that Jesus, because he was God, knew and understood human nature better than any other religious teacher the world has ever known. His teachings were based on this incredible comprehension of people and therefore he was best able to direct us to the decisions and behaviors that will serve as healthy containers and expressions for emotions in our lives. This is true without having said a word about Christ’s death on the cross and our need for a Savior. I believe the person who follows Christ’s teachings will live a better life whether they ever follow Jesus as their forgiver and leader or not. But millions of people who have made that commitment are living chaotic lives because
they do not understand how to make correct decisions for their lives. It is my hope that, at the very least, those who claim to follow the God who conceived and gave birth to reality as we know it will commit themselves to basing decisions for their lives on belief in, and our best understanding of, that reality; not merely on feelings, whims, and ideals.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • darryl silvestri

    great post, i fully agree with everything you’ve written. but it seems to me that one of the biggest issues with this whole mess we find ourselves in these days is figuring out what is “in our best interests” so-to-speak. for example, as Christians we have a fairly clear idea about what our lives should be like. however, the popular trend for people in our current culture is to “look within” to find our purpose in life, or to create one’s purpose in life. do you think that is why people put so much stock in emotions and feelings to guide decisions? rationality appeals to something outside of ourselves, something objective. emotions appeal to something inside of ourselves. am i making any sense here? i think ultimately this is a question of telos?

    • Just goals and how to reach them, you mean?

      • darryl silvestri

        well, as humans what is our ultimate purpose? what is our end? because aren’t our goals shaped by what we believe our end goal is? basically what i’m saying is, if we have to look within ourselves in order to create our purpose (which is the current belief in our culture), would it not make sense why people appeal to emotions and feelings when they make decisions? and perhaps this is why we are seeing this trend. perhaps i’m going off on a tangent, or just not making myself clear. does any of that make sense?