Human beings are both like and unlike Pavlov’s dogs. Yes, sweet or savory food can make us salivate. But we also can react to complex stimuli like the prospect of going to the gym. How do we come to feel positively about the gym? It is not merely by talking to ourselves about it. It is also by experiencing the gym—perhaps through personal fitness or being part of the gym community. Experience can form our desires.
In Summa Theologica, Aquinas emphasizes that our emotions respond directly to concrete objects and that we learn experientially from these objects. For example, we learn fear of burns by touching a hot stove. As a result, our emotional formation depends partly on our actions and partly on our thinking.
Our words frame our experiences, and our experiences give our words emotional content. Telling myself The spider is not dangerous is not enough to change my emotion about it. My emotion changes when I act on that belief by picking the spider up without harm. Experiences teach us.
As a pastor, I need to remember that the lessons people learn by experience may be wounding or healing. For example, experience may have taught a church member that men or fathers or pastors are not to be trusted. This member may react to your shepherding in ways that are consistent with her past experience and have little to do with you. Understanding the wounds of experience can open up a pastor’s compassionate curiosity toward the sufferer.
My CT article is on the front page today:https://t.co/syfbF98VBi
— Matthew A. LaPine (@matthewalapine) May 25, 2021