Feelings vs. reality

My feelings change in the blink of an eye.

I’ll be sulky, stuck in a seemingly unshakable mood. But then my phone will buzz and I’ll answer with the perked-up voice of someone who’s on top of the world.

The second feeling isn’t fake. It’s no mask. It’s a genuinely happy experience to be engaging with someone I enjoy. But to an on-looker, I must seem bipolar, swinging from one extreme to another in front of their eyes.

In the classic devotional My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers refers to these kinds of situational feelings as moods and writes:

There are certain things we must not pray about — moods, for instance. Moods never go by praying, moods go by kicking. A mood nearly always has its seat in the physical condition, not in the moral. It is a continual effort not to listen to the moods which arise from a physical condition; never submit to them for a second. We have to take ourselves by the scruff of the neck and shake ourselves, and we will find that we can do what we said we could not. The curse with most of us is that we won’t.

“Moods go by kicking.” I love that.

But there are more deeply seated feelings that aren’t quite as easy to shake (or kick). Some are closely held presuppositions about how the world ought to be. For instance, I used to have a predisposition against anything coming out of the environmentalist camp. Somewhere along the line, I had picked up a feeling that they were sappy sentimentalists and nature worshipers who stand against God and those who are simply trying to make a living.

But then I remembered the Scriptures which tell us that God created the world, that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1), that Jesus entered into his creation as a participant, and that ultimately we don’t go to heaven, but heaven comes to the renewed earth (Rev. 21).

A wide-ranging biblical reflection led to a change of heart, a changed way of feeling about things.

But between our situational moods and our deep-seated presuppositions about the world, we have personal feelings about all kinds of matters.

I dislike fish. I don’t actually dislike the flavor of fish when I’m forced to eat it. But even the reality of actually enjoying a piece of halibut doesn’t seem to change my feelings about fish in general.

I dislike heights. I’ve never fallen from any height of significance and I know how sturdy most guard rails are (I test them whenever I’m near a ledge), but even these realities do little to unwind my anxiety when I get above 10 feet from the ground.

But here’s the thing: I need to continually challenge my feelings with reality. I need to let reality shape the size of my world. If I let my feelings shape the size of my world, I’m going to end up in a pretty small world after all.

This is why I keep trying fish. Not always, but I’ll often sample a bit when it’s offered. I don’t want to cheat my palate. I want it expanded.

This is why I do things that challenge my fear of heights. I’ve jumped 60 feet from a bridge into Green Peter Lake and I’ve leapt from the side of a mountain in France to go paragliding. Both were nerve-wracking but exhilarating experiences that I did in order to not be held captive by my feelings.

It is essential that we reality-check our feelings on a regular basis. This is especially so as participants in a culture that tells us feelings are reality.

I am so glad that the feelings I had about so many things when I was a teenager — myself, my parents, my politics, my faith, my career, my romantic interests — have faced realities since then and been modified.

When reality is in the driver’s seat and feelings are along for the ride, we find ourselves in the sweet spot of life.

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