Fascinating: the role of emotions in human life

Would Captain Kirk skip out on Mr. Spock’s funeral? Not on your life. So when William Shatner, who played Kirk in the Star Trek franchise’s television show and movies, missed Spock actor Leonard Nimoy’s funeral, people were outraged.

No, Kirk would never miss Spock’s funeral; but then, the writers wouldn’t let him. This time Shatner and Nimoy weren’t handed a script. They had to play this drama out as it occurred. Shatner, who was at a fundraiser in Florida, explained that he would not be able to attend the funeral and announced that his daughters would be representing the family.

But Trekkies weren’t buying it, and reacted in a very un-Spock-like manner. They called Shatner names, including “Captain Jerk.” It was, as Mr. Spock might have said, “very illogical.”

And “fascinating.” Where does this loyalty and love for a fictional character come from? Wherever it comes from, it started early. When Star Trek first aired in 1966, Nimoy thought the show was unlikely to amount to anything. He was as surprised as anybody when fan mail – most of it addressed to “Mr. Spock” – began pouring in.

People loved Spock. Could it be that they identified with his ongoing battle to keep his emotions under control? And wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone waged the same battle, if everyone endeavored to be as emotionless and logical as Mr. Spock?

Probably not. God gave us emotions for a reason. For one thing, emotions help us make decisions. People who have lost their emotions due to orbito-frontal brain damage have found it impossible to make decisions, even small ones. It takes more than logic to make a decision. There’s a reason that Spock, the embodiment of logic, does not sit in the captain’s chair. For that you need someone who has feelings.

Feelings are not auxiliary to human life. They’re standard equipment for the human model. We need them. Without them we are defective.

But that doesn’t mean that feelings are all that matter, as so much modern art and literature suggest. Film writers love to tell us that the only way to live authentically is to follow our feelings, even when they’re destructive to relationships and morals. And on TV, parents are always telling their lovesick adolescents that they will “know” (translation: they will feel) when the time is right to have sex. As if every libidinous teen’s feelings are intrinsically reliable.

Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, but assigning feelings the responsibility of directing our lives – a serious theme in Existentialism, but also a recurring them in popular culture ­– is a fool’s game.

When a person’s life is directed primarily by feelings, it will soon be in a shambles. When his feelings become his identity, life will spin out of control: addiction, broken relationships and instability will characterize him. Feelings play an important role in our lives, even in decision-making, but if they’re all we have to go on, we are in big trouble.

Feelings are like a thermometer, but we often treat them as if they were a thermostat. We think we can somehow adjust our feelings without changing the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. But if we try to change our feelings without changing the conditions that generated them, we are doomed to fail.

Feelings are not under our immediate control. (This is entirely demonstrable: just try telling yourself not to be afraid when you hear a strange noise in the middle of the night.) Positive feelings can be cultivated, but only by changing our thoughts and circumstances.

Rather than trying to change our feelings, either by will power or by pharmaceutical power (though the latter is sometimes appropriate), we would do better to focus on changing the conditions – relational, spiritual, vocational, physical or other – that underlie our feelings.

To that Mr. Spock would surely fold his arms, nod his head and say, “Logical.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/14/15

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