Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hooks & Ladders, Catch & Release

My own emotions.

My emotions are my own.

I own my emotions.

It would be an understatement to say that my emotions and I have never been comfortable with one another. We were not even on speaking terms for a large portion of my life. Thoughts about my emotions or just about any expression relating to how I felt about something were always unsettling to me and have typically been closely held secrets.

Verbalizing my personal feelings (cue Jaws theme) always came with an ominous sense of cracking the lid on Pandora's Box. Hearing someone "else" relating "my" feelings to still another person twisted my gut. I was horrified if people didn't express a particular feeling or thought of mine exactly the way I had "meant" it.

Living in a box, I was living in a cardboard box. My own emotional origami puzzle box.

As a child I often hid behind our refrigerator to avoid contact with people visiting our home. By high school I matriculated into a generally social being, but most people were kept at a cordial long arm's distance. In college there were some good close friends with which I talked, shared and laughed.

But as college went on, and especially during my junior year, an increasing emotional pressure came to bear that I just couldn't shake. After that year, I withdrew from school and worked as a mechanical assembler for a local technology company. My best friend from college had transferred up to the University of Colorado. We split the cost of an apartment near the campus. During that year my friend's dad, having just given up his alcoholic habit, decided he could not deal with life and violently committed suicide. Their were some initial attempts at talking about it. But I felt mostly helpless and inadequate and didn't know what to do or to say or give in the situation. As time passed, the friendship withered in a wasteland barren of communication. Distance and pain became the prevalent emotion. I struggled in my own private world, and my friend - who certainly had more on his plate than me - did the same. Neither talked with the other about our dissolving friendship or much of anything else either.

I didn't understand how and what went on in that friendship and why it degenerated to such a degree. And why was it that in many (most?) of my other relationships, there was a prevailing sense of distance and disconnection in my life.

Close to twenty years later, much has changed. I married the love of my life, we together have six children. There has been stumbling and learning and some growth in many areas of relating and life. But just in this past year the eyes of my heart have opened enough to see at least one part of my unfolding emotional puzzle box. Something I had missed completely, which - for me - is key to relating to anyone. To borrow a term from that great cinematic movie for the ages "The Incredibles" I would call it "The Now."

"I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now" Edna

My definition of "The Now" would be: communicating what you are currently doing, presently thinking and how you are really feeling right Now, at this current moment in time.

I am sure this is patently obvious for everyone but me, but I spent most of my life avoiding The Now's emotions. My default mode of operation was to hide my thoughts and personal opinions. I was so good at it that most of the time I could not tell you what I was actually feeling at a given moment even if I wanted to. Weird but true. I did not know what to do with negative emotions. Pain, anger, disappointment, dismay, betrayal, indifference, unfriendliness, loneliness, misunderstandings, cutting remarks, the silent treatment, my response to the sin in my own life and so on really hurt.

I shoved the pain down, pushed the hurt aside, and just attempted to ignore it.

My approach to The Now's emotions has many problems and consequences. For starters: There is no free lunch. In this case that means you can't push away the negative emotions and still genuinely experience the "positive" emotions to any great degree. If you numb yourself to the one you numb yourself to the other as well. But by far the most important problem with stuffing The Now, is that it is not how God designed us to operate. He gave us our emotions, to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We are to Love God and Love people. Love is a decision and a commitment, but it is wrapped up in an emotional package. A "love" without the commitment is ephemeral at best, a colorful rainbow that's gone in a moment. But a "love" without emotion is stark, plain, duty. A heavy concrete block.

I do not like to hurt. Emotions can hurt. Therefore, I do not like emotions. Written in black and white like that it looks as ridiculous as a standard philosophy 101 logical fallacy: I have ears. An elephant has ears. therefore, I am an elephant.

I am learning, however slowly, that pain is not all "bad." A physical example: If I hit my thumb with a hammer it physically hurts and my emotions scream. But the experience can teach me. If I listen. "Be careful next time!" "Ow! Easy with the hand." Yes, it would hurt. But lessons about prudence, empathy for fellows at thumb smashers anonymous and even some practical "How Tos" on caring for a thumb injury could be learned.
If I listen

Leprosy would be a further illustration. The thought of Leprosy fills my mind with ragged people missing fingers and limbs, their bodies rotting away around them. But those visible signs of Leprosy are not from the disease itself at all. Leprosy causes areas of the body to become numb. Because the person does not feel what is happening to those parts of the body, they fail to notice and address things that happen at those locations. Physical injuries or the signs of infection go unnoticed. Secondary diseases can then take over and destroy the parts numbed by the Leprosy. Without the feeling of pain or irritation, no notice or care is taken. And body parts die.

The Now, for me, has been currently fleshed out by purposing to do my best to express - In Love - what I am feeling Right Now. I cannot express how hard this generally is for me. Being honest with God and myself (about myself) and particularly in my closest relationship - if my wife says or does something, and it hurts - everything in me screams to say absolutely nothing. I strain to keep the lid tight on the box. Bad things will happen if it is opened. The problem is that's what I almost always had done and it was not the truth. When I express a hurt, especially in my marriage, things do immediately get worse. But then, eventually, they get much better. There is certainly an instantaneous hurt registered on my wife's countenance. Especially given that I have not conducted almost any communication of this type for most of the previous 17 years of marriage. But we talk about it. Pray about it (and, yes, stew about it and pout about it.) But with much trembling and effort, there is new understanding, and a deeper level of intimacy. It has been hard and it hurts and it has been worth it.

Very privately, I purpose to let myself feel the pain of hard situations and not push the hard feelings aside. As a result I have experienced some of the weirdest conversations with myself driving to work. A thought or emotion comes up (related to any number of tough things) and my auto-responder immediately starts shoving the feeling aside. I find myself consciously saying "No!" and stopping the suppression process. I then find myself almost - like with good food at a meal - "tasting" the emotion. Letting it settle and actually - gasp! - feeling it. It is amazing that I can "hurt" and be Ok. I don't know where it all goes or leads. But those raw feelings have provided prompts to pray and to think and to talk.  It they certainly cause me to rely on God.

The Now and this whole process has been a ladder to help climb out of my box. It's a big big box.

A couple other corollary lessons as well:

Just because I feel something, it doesn't mean I'm right, it just means that is how I am feeling. And you are allowed to respond to my emotion with your emotion as well (this is very hard for me to take, but I am learning.)

And further, I have discovered that I express my emotions, often, with a large, wickedly barbed hook attached. When My Feelings are made known about something between me and another person, I expect that person to change their behavior toward me because of what I have most generously shared. This is a grievous evil and desperately wrong on my part. If the person doesn't change in response to something I specifically shared I have found I hold that against them. I pray for forgiveness and repent and desperately trust God to show me when I have done this and when I am tempted to do this again.

To bring my emotional epistle to a temporary wrap:
I spent so much of my life catching my emotions and keeping them "safely" locked in the box.  And then when I have released some feelings, I find myself attempting to hook the people.  Trying to catch them and keep them from misusing the precious emotional information I have shared.

I want to release both to my God. He's big enough to handle my precious feelings, and he's more than able to bring myself, my emotions and the people around me to the places He wants them to be. It's still hard, and it still hurts.

Here's to climbing further out of the box.

John 8:32 "...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." NASB