I Feel, Therefore I Am?

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Rene Descartes famously proposed cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” as the foundation of his philosophy. Today, a popular approach to personal philosophy is, “I feel, therefore I am.” People with this approach explain the goodness of actions and define love by citing feelings as the primary criterion. They differentiate their love for pizza, their pet dog Fluffy, an “awesome experience,” their favorite sports team, and their family and friends, with distinctions in how they feel (“like” versus “love”), rather than considering if they willed the highest good of the other or made a sincere gift of self.

Recently, Facebook provided 58 creatively named options for “gender identity” as part of its users’ profiles, allowing you to “feel comfortable being your true, authentic self.”

However, Facebook and other subscribers to the “gender identity” ideology do not simply want people to acknowledge how they subjectively feel about and view themselves. It seems the deconstructionist “gender identity” movement wants to present these perceptions as the fundamental elements of identity, even if they contradict the gift of a man or woman’s true, authentic body, a real part of his or her true, authentic self. They encourage people to present their self-perception to others as their newly constructed “authentic self” and even expect others to acknowledge it, or as Facebook states, “choose the pronoun they’d like to be referred to publicly — male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).” But to try to bend reality in this way to fit subjective feelings and perceptions is to court disaster.

“Exhibit A” of such disaster is the tragic case of “Nathan” Verhelst, born Nancy, a Netherlands woman who self-identified as a man. Enlisting technology to “magically” transform reality to fit Nancy’s self-perception, she underwent sexual reassignment surgery, which some champion as a “right” and even a “mercy.” However, after Nancy rejected her natural body, there were complications. Nancy felt she was “a monster.”

Now this is where affirming reality saves lives. No matter how much a person thinks they are a “monster” or how worthless they feel, their life, a gift from God, possesses great value and dignity. Presenting this truth is the real mercy.

Sadly, instead of challenging Nancy’s feelings with the truth, advocates of “self-determination” enabled Nancy to act on her despair and self-loathing, “helping” Nancy kill herself. And Nancy’s is not an isolated case. This assisted self-destruction is not a “right,” a “freedom,” or a “mercy.” This evil is a part of what Bl. John Paul II called the Culture of Death.

Fortunately, many recognize cases where self-perception misaligned with reality is harmful, including anorexia and body integrity identity disorder (amputee disorder), a less politically charged parallel to gender identity disorder. Thank God many also agree that depressed people considering suicide, addicts asking to feed addictions, and victims thinking they deserve abuse should not be enabled but need to be loved in truth.

To point out that difficulties occur when feelings are not in harmony with reality is not to deny the goodness or the importance of emotions. Our emotions are a beautiful part of human nature. They add a rich texture to our experience of life, enhancing our good actions by giving them added fervor.

On the level of our spiritual life, St. Thomas Aquinas, considering whether passion increases or decreases the goodness of an act, writes:

[J]ust as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Psalm 83:3, My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God: where by heart we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by flesh the sensitive appetite. – Summa Theologica Ia.IIaa.Q24.A3

It is important that, as God’s grace perfects us, our “sensitive appetite” – including our emotions informed by reason and reality – help move us toward the good. As Pope Benedict XVI described in Deus Caritas Est, eros, love of desire, can help move us toward agape, self-giving love.

Recognizing that emotions matter, our society advocates tolerance and fights bullying. Many grow up in broken homes, lacking healthy affirmation from family, and we should indeed affirm and protect these hurting people. People with “gender identity” issues are statistically more likely to have such vulnerability. But our response should be more than “tolerance.” It should be love.

Genuine loving affirmation does not mean approving every idea, action, expression, and feeling someone has. It does not pretend that emotions determine reality, nor is it afraid to challenge harmful lies and deceptive feelings, but seeks to educate both thoughts and feelings.

Genuine affirmation loves persons in truth, both affectively and in action, recognizing their immense value and dignity and accepting them unconditionally as fellow children of God. True love is grounded in this fundamental reality and, desiring the highest good for others, seeks to help them see and live in the light of this truth.

Christ told no one to “tolerate your neighbor as yourself.” He calls us to something higher, to love one another with all the messiness and difficulty that entails. As we encounter heated words, inflamed passions, and each other’s wounds, let us not forget Jesus’ reminder, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Image: Edgar Degas, Madame Jeantaud in the mirror

By | 2015-01-23T03:22:13+00:00 March 6, 2014|Culture, Philosophy|

About this Brother:

Br. John Paul Kern, O.P.
Br. John Paul Kern grew up in Annapolis, MD where his father taught at the United States Naval Academy. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering from Penn State University, where he entered the Catholic Church through the campus ministry's RCIA program in 2006. Before entering the Order of Preachers, Br. John Paul worked as a reactor inspector for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and attended Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, PA. On DominicanFriars.org