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Should I Follow My Heart?

Much is made today of the dictum, “follow your heart.” Usually, it is a popular appeal to the relativistic sentimentalism that has replaced traditional rational morality. But there’s an odd twist on this imperative that can infect Christian ethics, for it is sometimes thought that one’s inner life—one’s emotions and desires—must be put in order prior to any expectation that one’s outer life—one’s behavior—can be properly arranged. Of course, Jesus urges us toward the cleansing of the inside of the cup, toward liturgical prayer that is thought about, toward confession of sin and purity within the heart. All very true. But all very much beside the point. For the question is this: how is one to develop such inner purity? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Human beings are curious creatures. We don’t do well with straightforward moral teaching. The Law of Moses has much more force when it is attached to a ferocious image of Charlton Heston and his mighty staff! It’s almost as though we’re not simply minds stuck in frail bodies. Perhaps that’s the trouble; we’ve been thinking of ourselves as demented angels rather than as fully human beings, mind and body. That’s why we respond so powerfully to images of truth, rather than just to the truth itself. We know we shouldn’t lie, but when we hear the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, we feel it, don’t we? We know we should be courageous, but when we watch Henry V give his great St. Crispin’s Day speech, we painfully regret that we weren’t with him at Agincourt to slaughter the French. It’s in the concrete cases, the exemplars, the day to day business of things, where truth finds its force.

And so it is with purity in the heart. The heart cannot be gotten to but through the body. Virtuous control of one’s appetites and emotions seldom occurs prior to the action of placing them into obedience to reason. Such obedience requires choice and act. Take forgiveness as a case in point. How often when prompted by conscience that you really ought to forgive Sally for that insulting comment do you feel affection for Sally? No, the choice to forgive her is just that, a choice. The hoped-for improved feelings come later.

Or again, take the example of falling into love and falling out of love. Is love so fragile that it just happens to us? And then, again, so whimsical that is just leaves us on its own? Well, in one sense, yes, for we sometimes think of love as a divine arrow launched by a little cherub that suddenly overwhelms one’s life. But at some point later we no longer feel those overwhelming feelings. So, if love is just that kind of feeling, it does seem to take us and take its leave of us at whim.

Yet, we also think that the love that binds friends to friends, or parents to children, or spouses to each other through the rough and tumble of life is not at all so whimsical. Every aged couple who has successfully navigated the course of life gives us the same secret: it takes work! But work is something we do, not something that happens to us. So, there must be some part of love that is chosen, that is done, that—like forgiveness—is decided upon independently of the level of feeling.

It’s not really a cheat, either, is it? It’s not hypocrisy to awaken cranky and uncomfortable with no particular desire to get your wife some tea, but, nevertheless, to do it, yes, even with a grumble. This is love, for the choice to do her a good requires a part of your soul (your will) just as much as the feelings of love require a part of your soul (your emotions). Why would we believe that love is authentic if it’s found solely in the emotions anyway? Surely, we expect it ultimately to fill the entire person. And, since we persons are free agents, it follows that if love merely happens to us, then it’s more like the weather than part of our very selves. But when it is chosen, even over against the weather, then it is definitely personal, for choosing is what makes us persons rather than things.

But, surely, we might object, to feel affection for your wife and to bring her the tea is greater than just bringing her the tea. Yes, I suppose it is. But ask yourself what happens when you choose to bring her the tea, heat the water, steep the bag, set the cup just right on the saucer, add just her favorite amount of sugar, and then bring her the steaming hot cup. What happens to your feelings, to that inner man, as you work through this process? You change, don’t you? The very act of loving alters the lover, brings out in him the fragrance and flavor, the feelings of love. And then there is the look on her face—the beaming admiration and the twinkle of appreciation—that transforms what crankiness remains in you into gratitude.

The heart often follows our labor. That is what Jesus meant when he spoke of our hearts following our treasure. Money is just shorthand for labor. What you choose to do, what you put your soul into, that’s where your affections will finally be found. So, don’t try to manufacture emotions that aren’t there. Just choose to do the work of love. Let your heart follow you.

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