Act Before You Feel
Do I kiss somebody because I love them or feel love for that person after I kiss them? William James does not think that we lose something valuable and cry because we are sad. Or that we meet a bear, are frightened and run. Or that we are insulted by someone, get angry and hit them. Rather, we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble.
And he is reflecting a massive debate in the world of therapy. Do our emotions lead to our actions and we should therefore change how we feel to change how we live? Or do our actions lead to our emotions, and we should rather change how we live to change how we feel?
This week, Moshe outlines to the Jewish people the different offerings they will bring to God once the Temple is built. Which sounds more effective? Forcing people to bring compulsory sacrifices at specific times or asking them to bring free will, voluntary offerings, when their heart desires? (Dev. 12:6) On the surface, we like the idea of everyone giving what they want and acting on how they feel in the process. And yet HaShem knows that, even if someone does not feel like giving an offering, such an act could easily trigger off a positive emotion. Nowadays, we have replaced offering a sacrifice with offering tefillot and the same principle applies. Davening, even when we do not feel in the mood, can still give us peace of mind and help us connect spiritually or think things through.
Too often, we think the emotion has to come first. I am not going to do something unless I am in the mood to do it. The best example is probably exercise. If we followed our emotions, many of us would probably never work out. Instead we do the action, knowing that the feeling afterwards will be an immensely positive one. So too when you can not be bothered to do something for someone close to you or in so many other areas of our lives. We have to work hard to build a future-oriented mindset. Do the positive act and the positive emotions will inevitably follow.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates and students of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.