“Why bring up the past?”, “Can’t you just move on?”, “What good is it to keep going over this stuff?”
I hear questions like these fairly regularly, especially since we started blogging about childlessness. At their best they come from a place of love. No one wants to see someone they love in pain so they try to move them on, at speed, into a nicer place. At its worst, I suspect what they’re actually feeling is that all this moping around is ruining the party and they want to get on with some uncomplicated fun.
What I find remarkable is that this is actually possible, that our emotions are, to an extent, subject to our control. At some point we have all learnt to do this. We have felt an emotion that wasn’t suitable in that time and place and we’ve killed it off. We’ve felt the painful lump as we swallowed a cry in the classroom. This is a good thing; could you imagine if your moods were as wild as when you were a toddler? Sometimes this ability to set aside an emotion is invaluable. As part of my role, I sometimes take funerals and when I’m confronted with a crying family I often just want to cry along with them because it’s tragic they’re going through this. But that would be no use to them, they need me to guide them through the service so I control that emotion. Sometimes it just isn’t the right time for that emotion and sometimes our emotions are so out of line they need firm slap in the face. It is a remarkable and essential thing that we are not ruled by our feelings.
But what if you habitually killed off an emotion that was right, proper and appropriate? What if, for example, you chose to never feel sad?
In Zach Braff’s excellent film Garden State (before he acted in the absolutely awful The Last Kiss) he plays Andrew, a young man who’s been medicated by his psychologist father since he was a boy and as a result feels nothing. Andrew is almost totally detached from the world around him, in one scene he has a dream of being in a plane as it crashes and while everyone else around him is screaming and hugging he sits there completely unmoved. You will recognise this as only a slight exaggeration if you’ve ever been close to someone who’s on antidepressants. They don’t just stop people feeling sad, they stop them feeling. I’m not criticising their use as they’re essential for some people but their effects give us an insight into how our emotions work.
If you think you can stop feeling just the difficult emotions, you may succeed for a while, but slowly like Andrew you will stop feeling everything.
A couple of years back I had a painful abscess under one of my teeth. I tried stronger and stronger pain killers and they did nothing, until I discovered a specialist gel for dental pain. As soon as I rubbed it into my gums the pain started to fade. I hadn’t slept properly for a couple of days and was constantly irritable so this felt like bliss. That was until I went to eat something and I couldn’t taste it. Nothing at all. Cake, toast, fruit, coffee, all food became bland mush in my mouth. I love food (which may explain the origin of the abscess) but the pain killer stopped me from enjoying it. My sense of taste had disappeared as quickly as my pain.
What if the only way to truly experience the highs in life is to also pass through the lows? What if the valley must be traversed before we can climb the mountain? What if the anaesthetic you inject into your soul when life is hard stays in your bloodstream when life turns good?
I used to think the Psalms were weird because they seemed melodramatic and way too extreme. They swing from deep despair to extraordinary trust in God in the space of a few lines. They start by letting all the mess out unedited; doubt, depression, sadness and anger, everything is bared. Then a remarkable thing happens; this open heart can heal, it can move to hope, it can travel as high as it was deep. It turns out the Psalms aren’t weird, they simply know how the human heart works better than we do.
When the miscarriages first started happening I did anything I could to ignore them; I would try to bury my feelings, keep myself distracted and pretend it wasn’t happening. Today I allow myself to feel the pain of those losses because that is the only way I can heal and it is the only way I can feel hope. I’m immensely grateful to my wife for being patient with me and showing me how to do this because it took a long time and didn’t come naturally. Now I’m able to carry that grief, sometimes it’s acute and sometimes it’s dull but I always want to feel.
This is my appeal to you; please, please don’t numb your soul, or in the words of the wonderful writer Frederick Buechner; “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
I agree, when I was a chaplain I was always concerned and pained about British men who had been taught that big boys don’t cry, and were trying to hide their grief – often over news that they were terminally ill. Thankfully God’s love often gave them the confidence to admit their grief and they would break down when receiving Communion, or during a prayer, then their healing could start, and they could share their grief with their loved ones, who were also bottling theirs.
Very wise words. God created us to feel emotions -it’s part of what makes us human.
Thank you Dave for your thoughts.
Emotions are the psychological equivalent of pain taking is there is something wrong. Blocking out emotions hides from the fact that something is wrong and when we hide from our emotions we avoid the underlying cause of the emotion, stopping us from dealing with things.
It can be useful to control emotions for a time, in the same way that we take painkillers for our bad back of headache but important not to just avoid emotions all together.
Infact burying emotions often means emotions come out somewhere else, for example in anger, insomnia or more serious psychological difficulties.
Infact buried emotions can present add physical ill-health problems.
I could have a long discussion with you about anti-depressants and emotions but I won’t .
Thank you Ben, that’s a really helpful insight. No doubt you could write several books on it.
Thank you Dave for this. Really powerful.