I just took some time away at St. Vincent’s Abbey in Pennsylvania. Aside from opportunities for prayer and visiting friends, I had the unexpected surprise of finding myself in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. I had not realized that Latrobe was his hometown.
I strolled down the hill from the basilica and sauntered through the lovely little museum on campus. There I reconnected with many memories from my childhood: the shoes and the sweaters, the puppets and the trolley from the “land of make believe,” and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock. It was a providential preparation for my time with the seminarians, during which we discussed affective maturity and how they can become brave shepherds who accompany the flock with care and skill.
Looking back on my childhood, I think I learned more about my inner emotional life by watching Mister Rogers than from any other source. He gave names to emotions and normalized having them. He taught tools for processing difficult feelings. He showed honor and delight to all kinds of guests, exploring with curiosity and kindness the beauty and brokenness of their stories.
I marvel at the emotional intelligence and the personal courage of Fred Rogers. He tackled complex and messy issues head on: divorce, moving to a new town, losing a loved one – even the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He helped children and grownups alike feel validated in their emotions and to begin to make sense of what they were experiencing. In an age in which most families (and our Church families) avoided talking about the hard stuff, he dove right into the dark places, shining with a soft and strong light.
A reporter once suggested, “Mister Rogers was ‘softer’ than anyone else in children’s TV because so many of the messages he had to impart were harder … Mister Rogers spoke softly, but he never soft-pedaled.” His warmth and vulnerability were irresistible to many, and threatening to not a few!
There is a tendency in some Christian circles to dismiss or mock such an emphasis on emotions. Some will appeal to the primacy of reason or of faith. Emotions, they say, are supposed to be in submission to the intellect and to Christian beliefs. These hardliners may even think themselves “traditional” in asserting that primacy of reason, not realizing how untraditional and modern their rationalism is!
If you search the Scriptures, the patristic period, and the Middle Ages, you will find many tender-hearted women and men who loved fiercely and wholeheartedly. By contrast, during the last 500 years of Euro-American history, there has been an increasing compartmentalization and fragmentation of the human person. Emotions and desire are to be subjugated, and have no place at the table in figuring out life – especially not for men. I find it fascinating that the 1500’s simultaneously saw other forms of subjugation: the resurgence of slavery; the colonization and exploitation of indigenous peoples; and intense contempt, hatred, and violence not only between Muslims and Christians, but between Christians and Christians. In every case, rational or spiritualized arguments were offered to justify the atrocities.
Gone was the integration one could find a few centuries earlier, in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas studies the emotional experience at length, shrewdly observing how we actually operate as human beings. He describes “the passions” as movements experienced in our bodies: love, hatred, desire, aversion, delight, sadness, hope, despair, boldness, fear, and anger. The passions are a powerful engine, without which we cannot do anything. The passions are not to be avoided or subjugated, but befriended and guided. Reason is to be the steersman of the passions rather than a cruel overlord or an absent parent.
Contemporary neuroscience supports Thomas Aquinas’ view, with added nuances. Even our upper “thinking” brain has two hemispheres, with the left brain generally responsible for language and logic and the right brain generally responsible for creativity and intuition. Neither is primary over the other; we need the integration of both for healthy functioning. Then there is the limbic system, in our middle brain, which we largely share with the mammals. Our limbic brain is the seat of emotional connection, arousal, and the alarm system that propels us into a fight/flight/freeze response in the face of a perceived threat.
I am fascinated by the fact that Thomas Aquinas, in the mid-1200’s, described how both animals and humans have rapid and intense survival reactions to certain stimuli (for example, a deer noticing a hunter and fleeing). He went so far as to say that this capacity is located “in the middle of the brain” – a point which contemporary neuroscience has proven.
Many, many smart people today tell themselves the lie that they think first and then decide how to engage emotionally. Quite to the contrary, our emotional brain operates at a far faster speed than our logical brain. All sensory input runs through the thalamus and the amygdala before we ever begin “thinking” about it. Suppose, for example, that as I type I suddenly notice a slithering motion beneath my seat or a spidery figure dropping down in front of my face. My body will react with lightning speed to help me get to safety. I may notice, two or three seconds later, that it’s just a shadow or a bit of blowing debris. But my heart will already be racing and my muscles tense.
Have you ever had someone begin a conversation in a threatening tone of voice? Your body reacts even before the first word is uttered. You don’t know what the sentence is going to say, but your nervous system is already activating itself into a posture of protection.
The latest neural research suggests that over 80% of our nervous system’s communication is “from the bottom up” – that is to say, signals sent from our bodily senses to our brain. If we ignore, dismiss, or scorn what our body is trying to tell us (even when it is “irrational”), we will inevitably find ourselves acting out in unwanted behavior or intensified conflict. By contrast, when we listen with compassion to what our body is telling us AND receive or offer rational assistance in making sense out of the experience, we experience growth, integration, and peace. We then grow in compassion as we relate to others.
Which is primary, reason or emotion? It’s actually a misleading question. The emotions are primary in terms of both speed and intensity. We are always experiencing them first. They “happen” to us. That’s what “passion” literally means. But the rational brain is meant to be in the driver’s seat, steering the vehicle. We need a wise captain at the helm, but any wise captain takes excellent care of his ship and his crew.
Healthy homes are meant to be the seedbed of emotional integrity. Children see their mother and father honoring and delighting in each other. They regularly experience mom and dad attuning to them, receiving their emotions, and helping them make sense of both their bodies and the world around them. When that happens, their developing brains and bodies form well-established neural pathways that lay a foundation for secure relationships and virtuous decision-making. But it rarely happens – not for the last several generations.
We have been swimming in toxic waters for far longer than we care to admit – and that includes many of the “good” families in our churches. Most of us have remedial work to do on our affective maturity. Most men I know cannot even name what they are really feeling, much less what their spiritual and emotional needs are. I was one of them for a very long time. That lack of awareness sets us up to struggle, and keeps us from being brave shepherds who provide wise and compassionate care to the flock.
If you haven’t seen or recently A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019, starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers), I invite a viewing. It’s a beautiful invitation into emotional integrity – something the Church and the world desperately need.
Categories: Abandonment Abuse Affective Maturity Anger Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Grief Neglect Neuroscience and Trauma Research Philosophy Polyvagal Theory The Crib