What is the role of emotion in shaping our perspectives?

This is something a friend and I wrote a while back on our Global perspectives blog post. Thought I would put it up here as well.


In our recent Global Perspectives lessons, our teacher has put us to the challenge of testing our learning from this year. By combining our knowledge with that of our peers we answered a compelling question that made us contemplate our understanding of the role that emotion has in shaping our perspectives?

To explore the question Ellen and I (Aarushi) had a 35.23-minute long conversation about our thoughts (which you can listen to here), and here is a mind map we made connecting the ideas from our conversation together.

This blog post is an afterthought summary of the takeaways we had from the conversation.

In our “faith, ethics and ideology” unit – we covered decision making and whether certain decisions were moral or not and what that meant to us. One connection we made was the train scenario – except we integrated it into our question, for example, if there was a train and there were two tracks it could go out, one track had a single person but they were your really close friend, the other track had a dozen or so strangers – which would you turn the train onto? Who would you save? This is difficult because as we have talked about, our emotion towards our friend may cloud our judgment, even if we believe it may be more moral to save as many lives as possibly – in the moment is it often difficult to decipher what is right and what is wrong.

A major takeaway from this is the idea of friends in our emotions, and how their emotions also affect our own. In this way, we can be defined by the people around us – as can our mood. Since we invest time into certain people and understanding them, we feel a connection to them, and that is not always easy. In order to feel this connection and to understand someone, we must be able to empathise with them and connect with them on an emotional level – as everyone wants to be understood. This could do with your experiences for example, like if a girl got into a breakup – they are more likely to turn to a friend who has gone through something similar because in that way we can open ourselves up and feel vulnerable while staying comforted by the idea that we are not alone.

In addition to this, there is an importance to friendship when it comes to gathering outside opinions. Many of us may have dozens of friends, but only keep a few of them close – those are the ones that we feel we understand, and who understand us the best. Therefore in times of difficulty in which we are clouded by our own emotions, we may turn to these people for confirmation and a shoulder to lean on. For example, if we are extremely upset with someone, we may need someone else to assure us whether or not we are in the wrong, or how we should act in response as we don’t want to make the wrong move or act out in anger. And we may find it easier hearing these opinions and this advice from those we are close to, otherwise we may feel judged or attacked. It is for this reason that we turn to those we love in times of need. And especially because there is such a strong mutual understanding, we trust that they want the best for us and will support us no matter what.

On the other hand, reverting back to the train question, because we have this love for our friends, we would find it more difficult to lay such a hurtful fate on them, we may not be able to bear the idea. But these strangers? We don’t know them, understand them, we haven’t seen their lives and in some way – they have no meaning to us, as cruel as that may sound. So we might be more likely to let them go. This decision can be an act of selfishness as in that moment when a decision has to be made, we are more likely to connect and therefore react to our emotions instead of that of the others involved in the dilemma. Our emotions are in control of the fate of the others, and although this can be unfair, it is easy to resort to our emotions who seem to be so eminent in that moment.

We may not be thinking of our friend’s opinions, even if they believe in the theory of the greater good because we don’t want to hurt them – we may ignore this idea. We may be selfish in not knowing what we would do without them, who would we turn to for help? How would wefeel afterward? In this sense, emotion is clouding our perspective on what is right or wrong, or how we may act and perceive our own actions.

This brings up two important questions, Are humans inherently selfish? Or are humans inherently good, and take action upon their perception of good in that moment? Although both these questions are contradictory they are both slightly true. Before making a decision on which track to let the train go on they would justify our actions to ourselves (with the questions stated before) because in the end we only have our experiences and the emotions attached to those experiences there to shape the way we think and therefore the way we act. But from another point of view, these justifications can seem an act of emotional decisions, the most prominent one being the guilt of getting our hands dirty, that leads to selfish decisions.

But is being selfish a bad thing? As your parents may tell you when you are younger, in some words or another – anything can be bad in the extreme – but moderation is better. Though they probably said this to stop getting you to eat sugary foods, this could apply to ideas such as selfishness. It is not a bad thing, as it could be what drives people to create or build, innovate and be enterprising – but if everyone was completely selfish, or if they can’t control their actions based on this – the world would be a disaster. On the other hand, if everyone was completely selfless we would live in an indecisive world, once again reiterating the lesson of moderation from our parents.

Moving on from the idea of selfishness but staying in the realm of the dilemma at hand, that brief time period in which the fate of people lies in our hands, we experience a profusion of emotions. When we reached this point in our conversation we started questioning how much of our emotions we are able to understand. We realised that even though we often feel emotions it just so happens that there are times where we are oblivious to how these emotions are affecting our perspective on a situation, as we are unable to separate the emotion from the thought. This can often create problems as clouded judgment can lead to irrational actions. It is hard to comprehend,  that something we experience internally is not under our control, or it is but we are still not able to understand how. We, therefore, find it important to have people we trust to talk to like possibly the friend who is on the last rail of their life if we don’t decide which track the train takes.

But even friends you deem to be close can’t ever completely understand you, the same way you can’t completely understand them because of the minor but continuous state of change we experience in our life. This means that we can never truly connect on a complete level with anyone else. This can be a beautiful thing, as it pushes us to try and understand ourselves. Although both of us have not experienced the stage of enlightenment or nirvana from meditation, we are aware that meditation is not, not thinking, but rather it is being aware of the thoughts and emotions. In higher states of meditation, it is being able to separate yourself from your emotions in order to understand what you are experiencing when you get those emotions. Meditation instills the ability to be aware. We went on to further question ourselves about the next step after awareness but were unsure of what it might be.

Maybe a person who has reached nirvana would be able to make the “right” decision when it comes to the train dilemma. But who knows for sure? The beauty of human nature lies in our emotions, and all that we don’t know, but seek to understand.

Over and out- Ellen and Aarushi

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