How We Tick
What makes us tick? That’s a question from my childhood. My considered answer after some 80 years is that four functions drive us. They are:
physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual
This is not universally accepted. Materialists insist there is only one function, the physical (that is, chemical, physical, and electric). Many other post-Enlightenment theories say we are physical and mental. After Freud, some reluctantly add emotional. In earlier times everything was subsumed under the spiritual heading. I think all 4 are valid but rather than argue philosophically, I will discuss how we function holistically.
In order to demonstrate the reality of a function the first step is to agree that it makes things happen all by itself, without anything else contributing. Are there physical functions that do not need anything mental, emotional or spiritual to make them happen? Of course there are. Heartbeat and digestion, to mention two, are involuntary and go on even when one is comatose.
Mental functions include thinking. Creative inspiration, high IQs, and out-of-body experiences are mental. They are remarkable, but the fact that they are not caused by any of the other three functions proves (to me) that they are discrete.
Emotional functions are usually described as feelings. The list is long. Anger, satisfaction, affection, suspicion and sadness are but five of them. These emotions often involve thought, but they are prior to mental thoughts and independent of them at the beginning. Emotions behave in irrational ways, and they are as often caused by as they are the causes of physical responses. The validity of an emotional-quotient (EQ) is gaining attention.
Spiritual functions cannot be described separate from mental actions. It takes mental activity to comprehend whatever is going on with us that is spiritual. Nevertheless, as with wind, we may not see it but we perceive its effects. Spiritual experiences have results. Those include insight not derived from thinking but from what is gained when thinking has reached its end. Spiritual functions form a capsule or frame within when we live and move and have our being.
These single functions are not all that move us. Usually they are combined. For example, a physical-mental impulse is probably the most common motivator in everyday living. Hunger and pain are two mental activities that have physical triggers. Most of the time we are moved by multiple forces.
Let’s say we are faced with a social challenge: a neighbor is causing us trouble. Our frustration (emotion) pushes us to try to figure out (mental) what to do. As we grapple with how to deal with the neighbor we realize our options are of two types, essentially: action against the neighbor or managing to resolve our own emotional turmoil. Our spiritual character might well be the part of the mix that sorts it out for us.
In real life almost all of our conscious “doing and being” involve all four functions. Each of them contributes to the incessant chain of problem-wrestling and solving that goes on in our heads as well as a result of habit and trained responses. In short, we tick automatically. Almost everything we do doesn’t take a lot of doing. We just do it. That leaves us better off to concentrate on the thing foremost at the moment.
That brings us to activities that are interruptive or outstanding. Sometimes they take over. In almost all of these occurrences one of the four functions dominates, but only for an instant. Vomiting, orgasm, and sneezing are spasms. Even though they are involuntary muscular contractions, they occur in a context. A lot of thinking is going on, emotions are peaking, physical responses are only partly under control. For an instant the spasms are all that matter and cannot be diverted, but even as they are going on the context is being manipulated by all of our four functions sorting, searching, and seizing options about what to do now. This unified confluence involves elemental DISCERNMENT.
As we grow in maturity, we grow in discernment.
What we learn to discern is how all of our functions are working together all the time and how they are refined as we grow so our best interests are met with the least necessary effort.
Normally, we go along from one planned or spontaneous activity to another. We decide to sweep the sidewalk or call a relative. Then the cat wants out. We get back to filling out a report and decide we’d be better after a cup of tea. Each of those actions is composed of countless micro-actions. Overall, they contribute to a makro-action, a pattern of activities that constitute a part of who we are right now and in this time of life. Makro-actions are developed and transformed as we go along.
Life, however, is random. It makes victims of us, but maturity helps us keep on moving, hopefully, moving toward less urgency.
A nephew, this week, switched from married life back to being single. A lot of actions were involved in this major change of direction. Some of them were primarily emotional. Now, he will need to discern how the disruption has produced fragments to be composed into a new plan for life and find a new-normal.
That’s how life works. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.