Updated: Mar 28, 2020
For quite a few years I’ve been working on how I process feelings. Honestly, I’m not very good at it. I recognize that I’m very measured and controlled. I often protect myself from feeling overly happy or joyful...who knows what’s coming next?! I know I tend to ruminate a bit if I’m feeling worried or sad or angry…so I perhaps too quickly dismiss those feelings, for fear of getting stuck. In the midst of this worldwide pandemic, however, I find myself dealing with a lot of feelings. I know we all are....
I struggle answering that question. I’m doing fine, good... is a tempting go-to, and yet I don’t want to be dishonest. Sometimes if I say how I “really am” it feels like too much. People are generally after the “fine/good” report...asking as a social formality, not an actual request. As a child I took these social cues, and some pretty specific family rules, and learned to stuff my feelings. It started with what I would show outwardly, but then it became internal as well. I became measured in my happy moments, and pushed down sadness and anger, vowing to not let them show. These were my coping mechanisms. It wasn’t ok to express emotions, at least not the way I wanted to—especially my anger! And yet emotions lived on inside of me, bouncing around unwelcome, and I didn’t know how to get them out in any kind of productive or healthy way.
I’ve learned a lot since then, but when things feel this overwhelming, I’m tempted to revert to my childhood ways. I read earlier this week that someone “analyzed” Twitter posts, and based on all of our collective tweets, “the whole world is sad.” The weight of sadness and loss is crushing when we really look at it. It’s easier to isolate (socially and in every way), to have some good wine, to stick to Instagram and stay away from Twitter, to do push-ups...to do something/anything that gives us some sense of control and power. We want, I think, a good strong bandaid that makes the sadness and fear go away. We want to be fine, we are good, thank you...and yet the reality is none of us really are, not right now.
In his deeply helpful book on grieving, “A Grace Disguised” Jerry Sittser describes a “waking dream” he had after the loss of his wife, mother and daughter in a tragic car accident. In his dream he was trying to chase the sun as it was setting, but it kept getting darker and darker, and he finally sat down exhausted. He told his sister about the dream...
“…my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise. I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to out run it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it.” (A Grace Disguised, pg41-42)
Emphasis mine.... It feels frightening to me, and perhaps even irresponsible to suggest that we let darkness come. Should we actually turn and walk into the darkness of our emotions and circumstances? There is a darkness that can be despairing of life, and we shouldn’t face it alone...but as he said, darkness was inevitable.
In her wonderful book “Learning to Walk in the Dark” Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion, I need darkness as much as I do light.”
There are gifts that come in the darkness. Sometimes I have wondered if I’ll be able to stop crying if I let myself start. And yet the truth is, if I don’t let myself cry…the sadness will show up in one way or another. My body finds other ways to cry (and be angry for that matter). I sometimes redirect my feelings toward others, especially the anger, when it’s really not about them. Feeling the feelings helps—physically, emotionally and relationally. This is one of the gifts of darkness. Instead of denying how I feel, I can let myself have the option of moving into, through and past feelings that feel unstable and threatening. It involves actually letting myself feel...and then letting myself move forward.
I am also finding that as I move towards the darkness, I am not alone. I am sensing God’s presence in new ways. I can stop and sit and feel all of it, honestly. I don’t need to be afraid—I am not rejected or corrected or shamed—He just stays. Those who really love us often move in closer in the dark...if they can. I’ve started talking to Jesus more when I'm feeling afraid, or overwhelmed, or want to cry, or I'm angry...when it's a bit dark and seems to be getting darker. When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with me, just as David said of Him in Psalm 23. There is a great potential for healing (and growth) in the darkness.
I want to be careful as I share that. I believe many have been hurt by the “shoulds” of pastors and perhaps well-meaning people who admonish us and tell us how we should or shouldn’t feel. If we are spiritual people, we are told, we shouldn’t be afraid, or sad, or worried or any other faithless type of way. We should be hopeful and trusting God. So we sometimes end up trying on our own to make ourselves presentable to God (and others) somehow. And yet Jesus cried and was angry and was sad and was fearful…asking His Father to let the cup pass him by...knowing the suffering that was coming his way. He cried with his friends over Lazarus’ death, and then He raised him from the dead. Jesus is actually a powerful example of feeling deeply and then moving through the feelings. And He spent a lot of time alone, in the literal dark, with His Father.
I’m also finding that when I give myself permission to feel pain and sadness and anger, it somehow also opens my heart to feel more joy, happiness, love and peace. My heart is more alive. I’m more grateful. I am more able to see the ways this pandemic is also bringing out the best in people...there is so much beauty in how so many people are caring for each other. So much love is being shared.
“I have closed my eyes. I have clenched my fists. I have shut my heart, You have opened it. I have wandered far away, but You were already there with open arms, with open arms. I will let love find me. I will let love surprise me. I will let love redesign me. I will let love. I will let love.” “Let Love” by Jesus Culture is a song that is helping me right now. Here’s a link to the song…and here’s to having the courage to enter the dark, and feel our feelings to the fullest. We may find Jesus drawing even closer to us. And let's love each other, too, by asking, "How are you...really?"