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Do Our Emotions Fit the Situation?

This quote from Aristotle is a mouthful…so I honestly have to look it up when I need it. It doesn’t make the cut as a “pithy” maxim, yet Aristotle points to a very profound and sublime Truth. The Truth that he points to is something that I always keep with me and try to heed.

Here it goes:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

We all get carried away by our emotions at times. Often our emotional reactions do not fit the situation. They are exaggerated in some way. Have you ever blown up because of a small comment that your significant other or a close friend made? Ever get really mad at something rather small that your child is doing (e.g., goofing off instead of getting ready for bed or doing her homework). This is the Truth to which Aristotle points. It’s akin to the old adage that the punishment should fit the crime – a guiding principle within our criminal justice system.
I’m capitalizing the “T” in “Truth” here for a reason. There is a deep wisdom that Aristotle is trying to pass along. And, if we try to live according this wisdom, we and others around us will all be better for it.

Note that Aristotle is NOT saying we should never get angry – just that the level of anger should fit the circumstances and be channeled in the right direction (or at the right person). And this doesn’t just apply to anger – one can substitute worry or sadness into Aristotle’s maxim and the same Truth still applies. Do we worry too much what others will think of us? Become too sad about a low class grade? Again, it is fine to be worried and sad sometimes. We have these emotions for a reason – they can be used to inform and guide our behavioral choices. We SHOULD be worried (or scared) if we see a rattlesnake in our direct path. We SHOULD feel sad when someone close to us passes away. However, we SHOULDN’T feel as IF a rattlesnake is in front of us if we are going to give a 10-minute presentation at a PTA meeting.
Emotional over-reactions can cause us to experience a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Moreover, such overreactions can negatively impact our social relationships (the source of most of our happiness in life) and even cause health problems (e.g., chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease).

So, how do we put the life lessons contained within Aristotle’s quote to work for us? That bring us to another maxim (this one is pithy), but this time from Albert Einstein:

“A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.”

In our example with anger and emotional overreactions, we cannot explore the issue of whether our anger fits the situation if we stay at the level of being angry in particular situation. We must take a step back from it all and, in effect, have a little conversation with ourselves.
“Hmm. I sure feel upset about Jane! I can’t believe she is running so late! I’ve been waiting for over 30-minutes! I’d really like to text her and give her a piece of my mind. But wait! Just because she’s late doesn’t mean she’s inconsiderate. Maybe something came up and she is held up. Oh my God! I sure hope she didn’t die in a traffic accident on the way here! That would be horrible! I’d miss her so much. I can’t believe I just got mad at her when she died in a traffic accident. But wait! Maybe she’s just running late because she got off of work later than expected…or got snarled in 5:00 o’clock traffic. Or had the time wrong. Or maybe I have the time wrong…DOH! That’s it! She said she would meet me at 5:30 and not 5:00! I’m sure glad I didn’t zing her with a nasty text!”

Ever had one of these things happen to you? I know I have! Unfortunately, sometimes I didn’t catch myself and overreacted…and then regretted it later. I think we can all see that both Aristotle and Einstein were pointing to deep Truths that, if we internalize and live by, we will all benefit. Like most things in life, practice is the key here. With practice, we can learn to recognize our emotions in the moment and, as implied in the quotes from Aristotle and Einstein, ask ourselves, “Does my emotion fit this situation? Are there other ways to look at this? Let me try to step back from all of this for a few moments…to get some space and perspective.”

There is much to be gained from the wisdom of others. But remember that neither Aristotle nor Einstein created these Truths. These Truths existed before them and reside outside of them. They are merely fingers pointing at the moon.

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