Would you consider yourself more reasonable or passionate? Do you think things through before you act, or do your feelings inspire your actions? Is it a priority for you to maintain objectivity as you make your way through life, or is engagement with the moving stream of experience a higher value for you? Finally, do you more often plan and choose what you do next, or are you one who is moved by urgency and tends to see the options you had only in hindsight?
Most likely you will say “sometimes” to each of these, as well you should, since they characterize an inherent duality in the human brain. We are familiar with this duality as the opposition between thinking and feeling, and sometimes it’s hard not to divide the world into hard-headed thinkers and soft-hearted feelers. That’s when the inherent duality of consciousness breaks down and gets played out as a dualism in reality – no doubt the creative seedbed of mythology, religion, art, politics, and even a good deal of science insofar as it uses logic (as theory) to bring the mysteries of existence to light.
But “sometimes” doesn’t mean “equally,” and even a casual observation of yourself and other people will notice that each of us favors one of these more than the other. Just because I might be more reasonable doesn’t mean that I can’t be passionate. And if you are more the passionate type, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you can’t also be reasonable. It’s more true to say that reason and passion are inversely related, which means that more of one entails less of the other. Their dynamic opposition, and the inescapably paradoxical nature of experience as caught in their creative tension, is what makes it all so interesting.
Because I prefer being reasonable to being passionate – though, again, there are things I’m very passionate about – I’m going to analyze this opposition into two distinct personality types. I’ll refer to my own type as “high road,” and because I don’t want to suggest that passionate folks take the low road, I’ll name their type “deep stream.”
In the diagram above you should notice that I have not placed cognition (thinking) directly opposite to emotion (feeling), as popular psychology tends to do. Instead, the expressive urgency with which strong emotion drives us to act out is counterbalanced by the freedom to choose, in what is known as volition. For its part, cognition stretches across the system, although it intersects with (or intervenes on) the high road sooner in the process leading to action than it does with the deep stream. This is the distinction I was getting at when I asked whether you tend to weigh options beforehand (by planning and foresight) or more often become aware only later of what options you had at the time (in hindsight and review).
All of us are oriented by life itself on the specific challenges prompting us to act or react to the situations in which we find ourselves. The evolutionary idea of “fitness” refers to the way in which an organism’s behavior adapts to the conditions of its environment in order to maximize its chances of survival and reproductive success. If we loosen up our definition of behavior to include every kind of action, from physical movement of the body to glandular changes in the secretion of hormones, then it’s easier to understand how the quality, direction, and ultimate success of life turns on behavior.
If action is the ultimate outcome, then motivation is what moves us to behave in the ways we do. As we consider our own experience, we are aware that our motivation in a given instance might follow the high road of premeditated reasons, or be pulled into the deep stream of compelling passions – again in some combination, but stronger on one side than the other. Although my language makes it seem like it’s one or the other, I think we can all agree that volitional goals and emotional drives are intermixed in the action-path of our daily behavior.
Cognition, or conscious thought, gets involved sooner in the process along the high road of volition. When we are weighing our options and trying to determine which is more aligned with our longer aim, thought is assuming a vantage point above and outside the specific allure of the individual options themselves. This objectivity is critically important when we’re taking the high road, since it enables us to detach emotionally from something and make a rational appraisal of its value relative to our larger plan or purpose. It certainly is the case that much of our progress as a species is due to this ability for taking an objective view on the challenges and opportunities life brings our way.
But we aren’t just bloodless cyborgs calculating the probability of favorable outcomes according to preprogrammed logical algorithms. Our emotions are what make life really interesting, if also painfully complicated at times. Conscious thought typically shows up farther downstream for passionate types. Being “in the flow” of inspiration and spontaneous feeling is a higher value than trying to be so terribly deliberate about it all. But cognition does show up, and when it does, the quality of experience is not about objectivity but engagement. Thought at this level is metaphorical, fluid, and shape-shifting. To be engaged in what’s going on enables us to respond intuitively and empathically to more subtle signals. Think again about our progress as a species, and reflect on how much of it is the product of creative imagination, artistic inspiration, and spontaneous feeling.
All of this is not intended to pit one side against the other or force you to choose between them. There’s too much at risk when we glorify one side of ourselves and condemn the other, especially when our pathological divisions play out in the social realm. We elevate the favored part of ourselves to divine status and project the disowned part into our enemy, where it can alienated, vilified, and attacked.
We need to be reasonable and passionate, if we have any hope of being happy and healthy. There are times when we will benefit from taking a step back and working through our options with the big picture in mind. But there are also times when we need to jump in and let the spontaneity of life pull us from our well-laid plans.
Wisdom is knowing when the time is right.