Recently, one of my good friends broke up with her boyfriend.
Suffice it to say that over many texts and phone calls and Gchats with me and others, she determined it was time to end a relationship that was no longer working. There was no big blow up, just a slow ending.
Now she finds herself holding the tattered remains of feelings – those feelings that will always need to be patched and pieced together when a relationship ends. But these feelings are not just feelings. They are lined with the slippery fabric of guilt for having feelings at all. Or rather, guilt over having certain feelings and different guilt over not having certain others.
Penny, I just feel so out of it lately and not sure what it’s right and wrong to feel.
There is a fallacy of logic in that statement – an implication that feelings can be moral or immoral, right or wrong. Feelings are feelings are feelings. They just are. Desire, jealousy, anger, remorse, happiness, schadenfreude… they’re involuntary internal reactions based on personality, past experience, and environment.
Guilt over these thoughts and feelings is perhaps the stickiest of all the residuals that linger from the pre-Enlightenment rooting of Western morality in religion, specifically in Christianity. Whether in our love lives or our professional lives – or just in our daily commuting lives – there is an awful lot of angst over how we should or should not be feeling in any given moment.
But being a moral person is not about what or how you feel. Rather, being a moral person is about how you act on those feelings.
Morals and their accompanying virtues are ideals held up by society to make living in community possible and, hopefully, peaceable. To make a gross oversimplification of an amalgamation of various philosophical Ideas: Over the centuries these strictures have evolved and eventually morphed into one great societal Super Ego that somehow manages to burden us all with a swarm of Jiminy Crickets chirping about some nebulous idea of “should” formed from a mishmash of religious and secular ideologies.
These “shoulds” have, somehow, moved on from governing our actions to policing our thoughts.
Should my friend feel sad? If she feels sad, then sure.
Should my friend feel angry? If she feels angry, then sure.
Should my friend miss her ex? If she misses him, then sure.
Should my friend feel relieved to be done with the anxiety of a failing relationship? If she feels relieved, then sure.
Feel what you feel!
Human emotion is a colorful spectrum, from the blackest melancholy to the pastel-est gaiety. We should be careful not to attach morality to these emotions, lest we find ourselves one day circumscribed to a few very dull beiges with perhaps a nice taupe or eggshell thrown in if we’ve been especially good.