Of all the people I see week in, week out, there’s someone I especially look up to, for her ability to stick with uncomfortable feelings. An older person, she’ll always answer the question, how are you, honestly, which is very rare.
She’ll say things like ‘oh, I don’t know what’s going on with me – something odd – I’m just sitting with it; I expect I’ll find out soon’, and she means that something weird is going on, spiritually/emotionally, occasioned by some experience, but that through patience and squarely facing up to what’s swirling around down there, she’ll gain some insight about herself, and it will inevitably be slightly painful, but it will be growth.
Most of us are trained from birth to suppress difficult feelings, and by the time we reach adulthood we’re past masters.
Because uncomfortable feelings are just that: uncomfortable. We don’t want to face them, or feel them, and others feel awkward if we have to, so we conspire together. We smooth with our words, we disallow that someone might be really struggling. How many times have you started to tell it how it is, paused, stumbled, only to have someone finish your sentence for you, or in effect imply that really you’re fine. Things can’t be that bad. But we need to be able to say that they are. Because after that, they normally feel a lot less bad.
When sadness, jealousy, painful memories, feeling inadequate, feeling a failure or feeling totally un-needed surface like dirty bits caught in the washing up water, we naturally suppress. We feel uncomfortable, we think about something else; watch more TV, listen to more music piped directly into our ears, distract ourselves on the internet for hours. Instead of face our demons, we subscribe to the religion of keeping busy.
Polite Britishness often asks how are things/how are you doing? Ignoring the reality inside, we cheerfully reply ‘Oh, keeping busy’. Just about everyone’s ‘keeping busy’. I lose count of the number of times, as a priest, I am asked if I am busy. If I say no, people are genuinely shocked. Generally people want to know that we’re filling up our lives with activity, because somehow that’s going to make us, and them, feel better, or at least keep us all away from feeling sad.
But linger a while. Feelings say things about you that are real, no matter that you are embarrassed by them. “I shouldn’t be feeling that” is a nonsensical thing to say, though we’ve all said it. Maybe you shouldn’t act on your feeling – granted – but in point of fact, you ARE feeling that feeling, so stay a while, settle down, take five minutes somewhere quiet, be brave, take a look at it. Feel it.
Mindfulness, meditation and prayer allow space for negative feelings to surface, and in surfacing, to be exposed. The psalmist constantly told God how it was with him: ‘Why are you so downcast within me” he asks his own soul – no holds barred, and no doubt he felt better for it.
Not everyone is a competent or compassionate listener, and we fear being judged, so maybe it’s unrealistic to imagine we can be honest with everyone, but like my older friend who faces her demons on a regular basis, and who is one of the most self aware people I know, I can at least be honest with myself and try and brush the spiritual cobwebs away on a daily basis.
A freshly swept inner life, though it might be smarting for a while like a bright red graze, is preferable to the dingy suffocating attics some of us have inhabited.