Emotion or Reason? What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Embracing a Full Humanity

I’ll admit I’ve been a bit distracted by the Coronavirus crisis. My youngest daughter is a trauma-ICU nurse in Nashville and she’s scared. They don’t have enough personal protective equipment and although her unit is not focused on COVID-19 patients, the physicians move between the emergency department and the trauma ward on a regular basis. One doctor has already tested positive and a few patients are pending. She texted me to say, “You and Dad aren’t going out, are you? You’re isolating, right?”

This sort of emotional response may seem like overkill to some. A longtime friend complained on Facebook about Colorado’s stay at home order, arguing it is unnecessary in such a sparsely populated state. This perspective may come from the fact that at the same time our governor is telling us to stay home, he is also trying to reassure us that only about 10% of cases need hospitalization and only 5% of those are critical. And when Time magazine reports a worldwide case fatality rate of 4% but a U.S. rate of 1.7%, no wonder people are complaining.

Yet those numbers belie the truth. If you go to the data website Worldometer’s page on the coronavirus, you see that for closed cases (where the person has either recovered or died) the worldwide death rate is much higher, with vastly varying rates by country. The difference between those numbers and the ones reported in the media lies in the fact that at any given time we do not know how the majority of cases will turn out. So giving a death rate based on the assumption that of the hundreds of thousands of people who are still sick or hospitalized with COVID-19 not one will die is misleading. By God’s grace, when all is said and done, it won’t be as bad as it appears now. Right now, however, things do not look good.

So what does the current situation have to do with discussions of gender, the Bible and human nature? I guess I was reflecting on the claim that women are “emotional” and men are “rational.” I have come across this assertion several times lately, along with the idea that being rational is better than being emotional. I have heard this mostly from men, but sometimes women use the argument to support a wife’s unilateral submission to her husband. If men make better decisions because they’re more “rational,” the thinking goes, then maybe that’s why women should defer to men.

Yet this bifurcated personality is not how the Bible reveals the essence of human nature nor how it reveals the character of God.

In the Old Testament God is consistently described as compassionate and longsuffering. He is also filled with anger or regret at times. Jesus was filled with compassion for the sick, suffering, and lost, anger toward those who perverted the truth and exploited the poor, and love for his friends. It does not appear that Jesus made decisions based on emotionless “reason,” but rather through a rationality that functions in concert with emotion. 

When the situation called for it, Jesus wept. This in no way kept him from acting appropriately; on the contrary, perhaps it was Jesus’ emotional response that led him to act as he did. Mary and Martha were no doubt comforted by the way Jesus entered into their grief. Jesus didn’t stop there, of course. He raised Lazarus from the dead.

Scripture says:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace. (Eccl. 3:1-8)

The Teacher does not say there’s a time for women to weep or mourn, or for women to embrace and laugh and dance, while men remain unemotional and “rational.” Both emotionality and rationality are fundamental aspects of our humanity. The two go hand in hand and must be interwoven in order for us to most faithfully image our divinely emotional and rational God. 

Personally, I am sad that this is not the time for embracing. It is emotional to me, especially as I am staying away from my oldest daughter who is due to deliver her fourth child any day now. Though I regret missing the sharing of this season with her, my rationality tells me this is the wisest choice. Yet I do not deny the emotional loss, for an ongoing pattern of emotional denial would train me to be heartless. 

This is what I am trying to get at: A proper response to the varied joys and challenges of life requires the integrating of reason and emotion, two essential components of human nature. And both of those components are equally essential to the healthy functioning of men and women. To some this is a no-brainer; I get that. But as long as Christian influencers are still claiming that men are “rational” and women are “emotional,” someone needs to say something.

Here in the United States we have seen this integration of emotion and reason by both women and men in the midst of crisis. No one should fault Governor Cuomo of New York for becoming emotional in a press conference, whether raising his voice or seemingly verging on tears. Considering that his state has more coronavirus cases than all but five nations, I would be concerned if Cuomo did not display evidence that he has been deeply moved. And in the earlier stages of the outbreak in the United States, when Dr. Anthony Fauci was desperately trying to get people to pay attention, the emotional nature of his very rational appeal came through loud and clear.

Dr. Deborah Birx is another example of rationality combined with emotionality. Though she may not be as emotionally expressive as Cuomo or some of the others, her heartfelt concern and compassion are evident as she rationally explains the necessity of the course of action she and Fauci recommended to our president. Her name seems apt, as her footsteps follow after an ancient Deborah who, also in a time of great crisis, did her God-ordained job by convincing a powerful man to do his. 

The fact is, action based on “reason” devoid of emotion becomes heartless, self-protecting, and ultimately nonsensical. If we don’t allow our heart to be engaged our decisions overlook one of the most important gifts God has given us.

So what is the solution? Reason? Emotion?

No. It’s both.

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