It is possible to learn a lot from watching a two-year-old. A toddler is in many ways a miniature of the adult she will later become. One of the things that becomes quickly evident watching a small child is what a powerful role feelings play in our lives.
The emotions of a child are relatively straight forward. But as we grow into adulthood, the territory of our emotions becomes increasingly complex and confusing. A child has a limited range of options in choosing how to respond to his feelings. As adults our range of choices increases.
There are three human habits in response to feelings that create havoc in our emotional lives.
1. Denial The first thing that can undermine our emotional well-being with amazing speed is the habit of judging our feelings. This usually leads to either repression or denial. “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” quickly leads to “I won’t feel this way,” followed by “I don’t feel this way.” The accompanying subtle violence we commit against ourselves as we refuse to acknowledge the reality of our own inner emotional lives diminishes our spirits and poisons our relationship with all of life.
No one who has the Hebrew Scriptures as a serious part of their spiritual life will fall prey for long to the temptation to ignore, deny, or repress their emotions. The Book of Psalms at the centre of the Hebrew Bible is a book of unrestrained emotion. Not all feelings expressed in the Psalms are necessarily endorsed, but all are freely acknowledged and powerfully expressed. The Psalmist never pretends to possess a peace or confidence he does not experience. He never denies a negative emotion that rises up in his being.
Obviously we want to choose at times to restrain our expression of certain feelings in the company of other people. But the Bible gives us no mandate to hide our true feelings from God or from ourselves. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32,32) Truthfulness is a central quality of the Christian life.
Like mushrooms feelings grow in the dark. We are doomed to act out of that which we deny or refuse to face. There is no place in the Christian life for the dark desperation of any truth about ourselves we refuse to face.
2. Identification The second human habit that creates problems with our feelings is identification. When I believe I am what I feel, my feelings take on a disproportionate magnitude in my life. If I believe I am a bad person, an angry person, or a bitter person, because I have a bad, angry, or bitter feeling, I add a burden of guilt to my life that can become paralyzing. I am not my feelings. Feelings just are; they do not make me either good or bad.
Feelings come and go. My true identity does not change with the rise and fall of my emotional state. When Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), he did not suddenly become any less the Son of God than when in a bold gesture of faith he stepped from the shore and walked upon the water.
Our true identity resides in a place deeper and more real than all the constant changing turmoil of our emotional lives. The challenge of the spiritual life is to step aside from the constant flux of emotion and stay in touch with the deeper steady reality hidden in the depths of our being. We do not need to live as the constant victims of our emotional lives. We can watch our feelings rise and fall, knowing that there is a deep steady stream of God’s presence that resides beneath the unrest.
3. Attachment The third problem attitude in relation to feelings is attachment. Ironically this habit seems to relate at least as often to negative as to positive feelings. In either case it is detrimental to my well-being.
a. Attachment to negative feelings – Many people have allowed their entire lives to be poisoned by their unwillingness to let go of negative feelings. Keeping in mind that denial is never a healthy choice, there comes a time when for our own well-being, we must choose to let go of certain feelings. When I cling to anger, bitterness, resentment, or shame, I lose that precious inner freedom that is my birthright as a being created in the image of God.
The bad things that happened in the past are just what happened in the past. No amount of explanation or apology will ever change what happened. I improve nothing in the present by continuing to spin out an endless story about how bad things were, how grievously I have been wronged, and how the things that happened to me should never have happened. As long as I cling to these old stories, I will never move on. Part of me remains in bondage to a past that my stories never let die.
As long as I am determined to continue giving power in the present to the pain of the past, I continue to allow myself to be victimized by that past. I do not gain any advantage over the person who has wronged me by continuing to feed my anger against that person. I only continue to give that person power in my life. True strength comes when I stand up and declare that I will no longer allow the past to paralyze my present. When I stop stoking the embers of my resentment, the fires of bitterness begin to die. No feeling will last forever if I stop feeding it.
When I choose to let go of past hurts and resentments I discover a new dimension opening in my life. There is a depth in my being where I know that I have a strength and a peace that surpasses anything anyone has ever done to me. I discover that I no longer need to cling to my anger; I no longer need to hold on to my grief. I am free to face each new day as a fresh beginning. I carry no baggage from the past. This is true freedom. This is the Christian promise of resurrection and new life. No one can take from me this indomitable strength that is God’s gift to me when I surrender my determination to cling to old sad stories no matter how much I may have been hurt.
b. Attachment to positive feelings – There is equally a danger in attaching to positive feelings. When something makes me feel “happy,” I tend to cling to that thing in the hopes that the feeling of well-being might continue. But, just like negative feelings, positive feelings inevitably come and go.
When circumstances are conducive to happy feelings, it is important never to forget that such circumstances will change. It is not unnecessarily pessimistic to acknowledge the transience of all circumstances; it is simply realistic. When I demand that my circumstances remain the same in an attempt to preserve my feeling of happiness, I will always end up doing violence to myself, to the world around me and to the people with whom I interact. Life can never be fixed in a permanent condition. There are no unchanging circumstances.
But, beneath the changeableness of all circumstances there is a steady unchanging stream that flows at the heart of all existence. The religions of the world call this reality “God.” God is the permanent life-force that beats at the heart of all existence. (Malachi 3:6) This Reality does not let us down. God is never absent from life and can always be trusted. The more aware I am of this faithful Reality, the more I am able to watch the flux of feelings without my sense of inner steadiness rising and falling in its wake. My emotional life will be deep and rich, but not overwhelming when I find within myself that place of wisdom and depth to which the spiritual path aims to lead.