You have probably heard popular mottoes like “Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are” and “I can’t help how I feel.”
Of course feelings can be wrong. I may become enraged whenever anyone doesn’t do exactly what I want, sulk through my days in a permanent state of sullenness, or long to betray my wife every time I see an attractive woman.
Of course we can do something about how we feel. It’s true that we can’t simply shut off unwanted emotions and desires, and it’s also true that the very effort of suppressing them stirs them up. Even so, our control over our inward life is much greater than we like to admit. Although I may not be able to keep an unwanted guest from entering the house of my thoughts, or to force her outside after she has entered them, yet nothing forces me to ask her in. Nor am I compelled to sit down and admire her, to enjoy her attentions, or to invite her to play with my imagination. If I ignore her and go on about my business, she will eventually leave my mind on her own; if I pet her, say, “Don’t go yet”, and tell her what a lovely thought she is, she will return another day in power, and that day she will burn down the house.
Tomorrow: The limits of fixing ourselves