Terminal Emotions

We all have those pieces of writing that completely unlocked a new terrain for us. One of mine was Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, from 1939. To unfairly collapse it all into a single line (and perhaps also unfairly to do it from the English translation rather than the French original), Sartre proposes that emotions are predictive, that they reflect our judgments of what we foresee. So anger, for instance, would be knowing what you want but identifying a person or circumstance that blocks you from getting it. Grief would be knowing that you’re fated to live without that person or place or pet in your life. Curiosity is separated from confusion only by whether you imagine that you will or will not be able to figure something out.

I’ve used this formulation to make sense of a lot of things over the twenty or so years since I first read it; it’s been a productive way of understanding the world. But I’m increasingly frustrated (itself an emotional descriptor of not knowing how to productively move forward) by a body of emotions that seem to me to not be future-referent at all, that seem inert, terminal. Emotions like outraged, or offended, seem to not offer a forward path at all. We drop one of those, and we’re just done.

Another core text for me is Z. D. Gurevitch’s “The Dialogic Connection and the Ethics of Dialogue,” an article published in The British Journal of Sociology in 1990. His notion of the ethical circumstance of dialogue includes three responsibilities: to speak, to listen, and to respond. That sounds trivial, but it isn’t, really. Dialogue is broken if someone refuses to speak. It’s broken if someone speaks and the other isn’t able to listen. And it’s broken if both people speak and listen, but there’s no real response, no sense in which thinking or behavior is affected by what’s been said and heard. And that, to me, is where being outraged or offended are themselves stances that violate the ethics of dialogue. They aren’t aimed at change or growth (being not future-oriented, they couldn’t be); they offer no possibility, only closure. They’re expressions of hopelessness, in a way, the belief that there is no meaningful future of rapprochement.

Decades ago, when I was in catechism class, I remember learning that “it is a sin to offend, but it is also a sin to take offense.” The notion was that if God could offer grace to all of us fallen, it was our duty to extend that grace to those we encountered. I’ve long since left that faith, but have increased my conviction in that attitude. Grace may be the opposite of outrage: the expression of constant hope for the powers of dialogic healing. Grace has a future. Outrage has no need for one.

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