Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is the Director of Areivim, an organization that offers counseling, crisis intervention and referral services for teens and their families.
Intellectual and Emotional Knowledge – Part 1
I recently saw a family walking on the street on Shabbos. As they neared a home, they heard a dog barking behind a fence. Two of the family members crossed to the other side of the street. I wondered why. The dog was behind the fence. In the unlikely event that the dog would escape as they passed, crossing the street wouldn’t offer them much additional protection.
People make decisions and draw conclusions from both an intellectual and emotional angle. There are many differences between the decisions that originate from the intellect and those that originate from the emotion. For instance, in the above scenario the difference is glaring. On an intellectual level there’s no reason to cross the street, but on an emotional level, people feel safer having a greater distance between themselves and a dog and this is why I believe they crossed the street.
Although the decision to cross the street may not help them, it also doesn’t hurt them. Therefore, if they feel better by crossing the street, they should. In this situation acting on their emotions is harmless. However, there are other situations in which acting on one’s emotions may hurt them.
There are three basic differences between one’s intellect and emotion. The first is that emotional people can’t think methodically. Emotional people may make decisions even though “A” doesn’t always lead to “B”. For example, a person may be very upset about an incident that just happened and may feel (feeling is often the reaction of the emotion) the need to ask another person to stay up all night to talk about the problem.
When I ask that person what he gained by repeating the incident to the second person from 15 different angles, has no real answer for me. The next morning he’ll not only still be upset, but he’ll also be tired and unable to fulfill his daily responsibilities. In addition, because he’s tired, he’s placed his job, something that he really enjoys, at risk.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The perception of a need may actually create such a need. If the person feels that he needs to stay up for hours and lament his situation because his emotions say that he should, then doing so may actually help him feel better. The price that he may have to pay may be a tangible one, such as being too tired to fulfill his daily responsibilities. His “crossing the street to avoid the barking dog” may actually cause him more problems than he presently has.
On the other hand, intellectual thought would conclude, “I’m not doing well right now. Nevertheless, I need to do what I can to make the situation more bearable. Staying up all night may make me feel better but it’s not really a smart thing to do. My job is something which offers me stability and isn’t something that I should place at risk”.
Many people have told me that they want to help friends in trouble. When I ask them how they think their efforts will help, they usually respond that, “They probably won’t, but at least I’m doing something”. This is an emotional response, and not an intellectual one.
The second difference is that emotions often create, risks that aren’t real. In my opening scenario, there’s really no risk of the dog getting through the fence. However, people can fear things that have little, or no, chance of taking place.
For instance, some parents say that they’re afraid to allow their children to stay in a school dormitory because it’s very far away. When I ask the parents about their specific concerns, they describe fears that have nothing to do with the distance. “They may get sick” or “They may go to a mall without the school knowing about it”. These two concerns, although they may be legitimate, can also take place, and often do, while the children are at home.
Even if the risk of becoming sick or roaming unsupervised actually does increase while in a dormitory environment, emotions are unable to assess the level of risk and compare it to the possible advantages offered by accepting those risks. Although emotions go through a checklist of possible options and risks and may see everything as having equal value, the truth is that emotions don’t assess all gains and risks equally. This causes people to give up opportunities that offer significant chances of success, because of potential problems that do not represent significant risks.
Emotions base risks on their emotional factors. Falling off a tall building is a gripping fear, even though it hardly ever happens. Sending children thousands of miles away is scary. Emotions can’t accept that the potential advantages of a dormitory environment. Having their son introduced to great Rabbeim, should override those fears. Being overly concerned with risk can cause people to make unwise decisions.
Intellect tells people to “step back” and consider not only the risks but the level of risks, and the chances of those risks happening. Acting on a risk which is based on the percentages of risk vs. gain, allows for a rational decision to be made.
The third difference is that emotion doesn’t appreciate the concept of time. People can think about past incidents which dramatically affected their lives, and they can, for that moment, imagine them with the same intensity as when they first happened. This is often referred to as flashbacks.
In addition to the terrible discomfort of being haunted by flashbacks, they cause people to make wrong decisions. The fear of something that’s long gone is given the importance of a present concern. Peoples’ self esteem, for instance, can be effected by incidents that happened long age. They still see themselves as being the ones that failed or were abused.
Instead, when one has a flashback, one should think, “That incident was terrible, but it happened 3 years ago and I need to place it within my past, not my present. I’m not that person anymore”. By placing an incident in its proper place in time, one can remove the emotional intensity of the incident. After repeated reminders, the flashbacks will become nothing more than distant memories.
To be continued….
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