Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them? What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going? Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”
Gasp. Trust my feelings? That is not one of my internal constructs.
I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them. I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.” Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.
My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age. I loved being around her. She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left. Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried. Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that? What if I took a picture of your face right now?” Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.
That didn’t go well. Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger. I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed. And pissed I was.
When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways. I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried. Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.
My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down! So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.
How does a preteen do that? Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.
I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying). None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.
All was not terrible, of course. I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.
High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum. I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear. Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out. Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.
The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional. I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.
I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface. I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry. I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.
That was over thirty years ago.
Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions. I was certainly going to get it right with my own children. I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns. Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me. How could it not?
So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy. She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.
These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt. They don’t go away. If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable. And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.
So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep. I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write. Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.
Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.
I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.
It might be loud. It might be messy. I might attract attention.
I’m ok with that.
I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;