Mind and Emotions

It happened in one of our Christian hospitals for the mentally ill. Two ministers had gone to visit a young man who was receiving treatment. The young nude patient was very sick. His line of talk was highly delusional. After the pastoral duties had been performed and the two visitors were ready to leave, one of them said to the patient, “Young man, you have a lot of crazy ideas in your head. You must get rid or them.”

The patient looked at the minister in disdain and replied, “If you had as much of the Holy Spirit as I have, you would be able to understand what I am talking about.” And with that he turned away to renew his highly private reflection.

This story is told here with no intent to suggest that ministers are generally stupid in dealing with the mentally ill. The approach to the mentally ill patient used by this particular minister is very rare, I am sure. But the story does lay open a most common misunderstanding with regard to mental illness. That misunderstanding is that mental illness is something intellectual, something of the mind in the narrower sense of that word. Hence, in the e[fort to help such troubled personalities well-meaning people think in terms of helping them to see things straight, of getting the patient to think clearly and correctly. After aIl, don’t we speak of these difficulties as mental illnesses? Don’t people suffering from such maladies often have “queer ideas?” Shouldn’t we conclude that mental health is simply the capacity to think straight, and mental iIl-health is simply the want of this ability?

In the last number of articles in this series we have been trying to clear the ground by making several preliminary observations and necessary distinctions. We have also given a general definition of mental health in terms or effective rapport with reality as God has ordained it.

Now we must become more specific. Just what is wrong in mental illness? What are we dealing with when we have to do with some one suffering from such disturbing and sometimes highly mysterious and baffling disorders?



The Word “Mental”

We have already intimated that the word “mental” is misleading as we use it in the phrase “mental illness.” Many people somehow have the feeling that one suffering from a “mental illness” is less intelligent than people not so afflicted. Few notions could be further f;rom the truth. Anyone who has done even a little work in this field knows very well that such illnesses can strike people of all intellectual levels just as all diseases do. People of high, medium and low intelligence are under the care of the psychiatrist. Both the illiterate and the college and university graduate are found in the mental hospitals. If these disorders were actually a matter of faulty intellectual functioning as such, we would have to think of our hospitals for the care of these people as places for heretics and for those who have a poor sense of logic. Quite obviously we do not think of our hospitals for the mentally ill in that way.

To be sure, psychotic people often develop weird and bizarre intellectual productions, sometimes o[ a highly intricate sort. Yet, it is not that which we more narrowly call the “mind” as such that is responsible for such productions. Rather, the intellectual equipment of the personality is the obedient servant of some other mightier power in the personality that lies deeper than the intellectual function.

A true story may help to lay bare the problem. A patient once told me a most fantastic tale of imprisonment, escape, pursuit and mayhem. The story of his adventures was most involved and improbable. When he had finished his elaborate account he said, “That’s a strange story, isn’t it.”

I agreed it was most strange. Then he added this remarkable statement, “Now if you told me all the wild things that I’ve told you, I would think you were crazy. But I know that these things are true.”

This man had enough intellectual insight to label his tale false. Strictly speaking that which we more narrowly call the “mind” in this case was in good order. Yet somehow this correct intellectual insight was overruled. The elaborate story was of such overwhelming significance for the personality that it had to stand. Some force in the personality set aside the judgment of the intellect.

What is there in the personality that can overrule the intellect? Is not the intellect master of the house? Would anyone dare to suggest that there is a power in the personality that is stronger than the intellect, that can overrule the noble function that has been held in such high esteem ever since the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?

In partial answer to that question we quote two authorities—one a well-known standard text in systematic psychology and the other a sage and cautious theologian. After a thorough study of the leading modern schools of psychology, Heidbreder comes to the conclusion that “There is notable agreement among psychologists that the rational and cognitive sides of human nature have been enormously overemphasized in the past.” This authority states furthermore, “not only have the intellectual processes themselves been conceived as less rational than they seemed; such as they are and whatever they are, they have come to be viewed as far less decisive than they were formerly thought to be in determining human conduct.” We are told that men “are creatures in whom emotion and impulse are powerful factors in determining conduct and in whom reason seems less decisive than was long supported” (Heidbreder, Seven psychologies, pp. 418f.).

The opinion of Heidbreder (which does not seem wholly satisfactory in every detail of expression) must be placed along side the judgment of that careful theologian Herman Bavinck. After stating that man’s emotional energy begeervermogen) represents a native, inherent energy (“eigen kracht”) which works centrifugally (from within) while man’s intellectual processes are more passive in character and work centripetally (from without), Bavinck makes this nat statement: “The emotions and passions play a much greater role in the life of the individual person and in the history or people in general than docs the pure (gezond) understanding. They are the most weighty factors and the most powerful forces that we know in the world or men” Beginselen der psychologie, pp. 156f.).

Some reader may think of an acquaintance who is not a stable person and may react to the above line or reasoning somewhat as follows: Mrs. Giddy is a most emotional person; I just don’t believe that anything like that is the most powerful force in my life. That may be true of certain unstable people who can’t seem to keep their feelings in line, but it certainly is not true of me.

The Deeper Level

The point we are trying to make in this article moves on a deeper level than the outward emotionality of certain unstable people. The term “emotion” carries a prejudice that renders the word more than a little unsatisfactory for our purposes. For our purposes we use the term in lieu of a better one. We use it to refer to those basic energies that move man to life and action. We refer to those needs and instincts and drives that Bavinck refers to as man’s native energy (“eigen kracht”) and that he subsumes under the term “begeervermogen.” We refer to that mighty demanding core of life that calls insistently for love, understanding, recognition, friendship, fellowship, security. We mean that wonderful central area of life that we cover by that pregnant word “love” with all its connotations. We mean that all-important central area of life where injuries and hungerings, distortions and faulty conditioning will produce insecure, unbalanced personalities, love-hungry and love-twisted personalities whose inner life is sick and unstable because they have nOt been made perfect in love. On this deeper level it will not do for the stalwart Mr. Atlas to speak scornfully of Mrs. Giddy as being an “emotional person.” Rather, on this deeper level it is only fitting that every Mr. Atlas must also say, “I too am an emotional person.”

In contending for a fair and realistic appraisal of the place of the emotions in man’s life we would not be forced to extreme positions because of misunderstanding. We are not stating that man’s emotions are the only really important element in him and the intellectual life is always mere lackey to them. There is no intention on our part to minimize the importance of intellectual discipline and clear thinking. But in thinking of personality health and effectiveness we must always think of the personality as a whole, as a unity. And in that whole of the personality no element can operate apart from the other aspects of the person. We do well, therefore, to realize that in all of the person’s life on every level there are profound influences of an emotional character that affect all that he does and thinks, often in very subtle and in obvious ways.

The point now under consideration is of sufficient importance to warrant careful study of the Biblical evidence. Even though the Bible does not present us with a scientific psychology, our conception of the personality must be in harmony with the biblical data. We hope to discuss this biblical data in our next article. Now we shall tale a look at certain factors in our experience to place in sharper focus the point we are trying to make.

That emotions play a most important role in the life of the child is obvious to all. The child needs much love from the parents. He is emotionally most dependent on them. The child whose sense of being loved is placed in jeopardy is a pitiable creature. As the child grows to adulthood, this emotional core of life must mature. Disciplined judgment must take the place of whim and fancy. Almost complete dependence must give way to a high degree of independence. Yet, though this necessary process of maturation takes place, fundamentally the personality does not change. That core of life that is best thought of in terms of the word “love” remains. Much twisted but unmistakable evidence of that fact call be seen in the lives of many criminals, in much political radicalism, and in our hospitals for the mentally ill.

A mother who normally has herself well in hand can develop some rather dreadful ideas when her child is long overdue from play. In cold fact she knows that her child usually comes home safe and sound, even though late. But such evidence can be brushed aside and the mother becomes almost sure her child has been hurt. Pictures of him hit by a car or falling into a river come before her mind. In such instances the intellect is the helpless servant of the emotions.

The role of prejudice in men’s thinking is always most remarkable. It is astonishing how minds that can be sharp and precise on many things can often be swayed by blind prejudice. In the area of politics we often see competent men reach a state of such blindness that they must condemn everything that the political opposition may suggest or do. Otherwise intelligent parents and grandparents can often be utterly oblivious of the serious faults of children or grandchildren. A personal attachment can sometimes tune a sharp mind to opinions that are quite unreasonable. What accounts for the significant role of prejudice in the thinking processes of men? We must conclude that these fixations in the lives or people are centers of experience that have a strong emotional tone. Yes, such fixations usually have their roots in important emotional experiences in life, or they fulfill deep-seated emotional needs in the person holding the prejudice.

It has been most refreshing to witness a disrobing of one of the pet idols of the academic world. This idol has stood for a long time in the temple o( the intellectualist. This idol is the notion that some men (self-designated usually) can think with complete Objectivity, without any bias of any kind. Sir Walter Moberly, in his book The Crisis in the University, makes it rather convincing case for the position that this fundamental delusion must carry a large share of the blame for the failure of the modern university (Moberly teaches at Oxford) to develop intellectually and morally responsible men. Moberly says that the academic mind is moved by deep-seated prejudices and other non-intellectual factors just as the minds of other men are. The idol of complete intellectual objectivity represents a fundamental dishonesty.

Closely related to the point raised in the preceding paragraph is the positive position developed by Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd in the Netherlands. These men at the Free University of Amsterdam contend that all philosophy and all philosophical speculation is preceded by a commitment that is non-intellectual in character. Every philosophy must have a starting point. And that starting point always lies in a “prescientific presupposition,” say the gentlemen from Amsterdam. One’s philosophy is determined by the bent of one’s “heart.” One’s philosophy is determined by one’s religion basically. It seems to the present writer that there is something quite salutary about this approach. One need not commit himself on every detail of the thinking of these men as he sees the validity of this basic starting point in reflection. It must also be added that it is not fair to Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd to leave the impression that their “heart” is the same is that which we are here speaking of as the emotions. In the opinion of this writer their “heart” bears a dose affinity to that which we have sought to describe as the emotions on their deeper level. Our reference to this position of the gentlemen from Amsterdam is intended simply as an illustration of our main point that the “mind” of man does not operate in sublime isolation from certain very fundament;d forces in the total personality.

In line with our discussion there is a development in modern political history that cannot f:lit to stir both fascination and distress in the interested observer. More than one student of such things has pointed out a psychological factor of great moment in the growth of the totalitarian states. Such governments have hold on a powerful non-rational factor in the human character that enables such states to gain great power over men’s lives. Man’s deep-seated yearning for security drives him to surrender to those dynamic personalities or programs that assure him of security. Indeed, man was made to serve God in the totality of his being and to find his peace in the Almighty. When man does not rest in God, he must cast about for a substitute. And here the totalitarian State plays the role of God to men. Even people who would appear to be highly intelligent have been caught in this psychological pit.

One more illustration of our general point concludes our article. Young people coming from a particular cultural milieu with its own ideas and customs may leave such a milieu, possibly as part of the intellectual and social development of their lives. But one often sees such people return to the milieu of their nativity. Even though they have engaged in high intellectual and spiritual adventure, something draws them back to the selling to which they are bound by innumerable ties. This return may not mean a full intellectual return to the set of ideas that formed this native milieu. The motives that prompt such a return are very likely predominantly emotional.