Friday, September 5, 2008

What Makes Us Human

There's someone in my life, someone whom I love dearly, who is very sick. When her illness first emerged last year, I so wanted to be positive for her sake and also to assuage my own discomfort, so I donned a fake, pasted-on happy face and talked of positive attitudes and keeping spirits up and so on. I felt like such a fraud the whole time I did this. What a relief it was when her illness went into remission -- what a just reward for enduring such a grueling course of chemotherapy. And how convenient for me, that I could pack away all that repressed ickiness I had felt deep down but never fully acknowledged.

Yesterday I learned that the symptoms of my loved one's illness have returned, and now I feel horrible. I feel sad and angry on behalf of the person who is sick because, by all the standards that I can conceive for judging such things, her situation just flat out isn't fair. I also feel sad and angry on behalf of her parents and siblings, who are all wonderful people and who each suffers in his or her own way because of this illness that is not theirs to bear yet that cannot but help to affect them all. In addition, I feel sad and angry for myself, because I am frustratingly powerless to make this young and vibrant person as well as I believe she deserves to be, as I so earnestly want her to be.

I now know from experience that trying to deny all these difficult emotions, as unpleasant as they may be, is not a wise path. Despite my most valiant efforts last year to suppress them, the uncomfortable emotions didn't ever really go away -- they just found new and creative (and usually not very productive) ways to rise to the surface and force me to acknowledge them. I reflected on last year's emotional repressions at great length today as I thought about the possible future journey that lies ahead if the tests next week confirm what we all suspect.

It now is clear to me that emotions do not stand for being suppressed, greeted with shame, or otherwise overlooked. Our emotions are one of the things that make us human, and we should feel them -- we need to feel them, and when we ignore or deny them we do so at our peril. After having that thought, I explicitly said to all that complex and intertwined stuff otherwise known as my emotions, "Bring it on!" From now on, I intend to feel each and every emotion that enters my heart or crosses my brow, and to feel it fully. The good ones, the bad ones, the ones that make me so uncomfortable I want to move to Timbuktu just to get away -- bring them all on. I can handle them.

I can handle all these crazy emotions, and here's why: All emotions are by their nature fleeting. We feel good today, we feel bad tomorrow, we feel kinda-sorta OK the day after that, and so the cycle goes. Actually bringing ourselves to feel all these fleeting and ever-changing emotions is how we know we're alive. I think we get ourselves in trouble, though, when we don't let a fleeting thing do its thing and flee. The trick, in my view, is to feel each emotion that arises for all it's worth, but then when its worth is expended to let it go. The trick, in other words, is to not get stuck.

This is what I want to say to my family, and to myself, right now: Tough times may well be ahead, but don't be afraid of your emotions and for god's sake don't deny them. Your emotions are what make you human, so embrace them. Embrace each one of them for whatever time it seems to serve a useful purpose, and then let it go so that you can feel the next thing just as fully. Because there will be a next thing. There always is.


Barbara said...
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Reya Mellicker said...

Let's not have this person dying just yet, please?

E-MOTIONS ... they move fast and are unpredictable, non-rational, which is why I think they're so scary. Pema Chodron is a wonderful Buddhist teacher who suggests that we allow our emotions to make us "softer." Isn't THAT scary?

Speaking only for myself here, I believe that living in this society, at this moment in time, requires some level of repression - just to get through the day.

Sitting in a meeting at work, for instance, it's just not OK to burst into tears, even if that's the most true expression of the moment.

But stuffing all feelings that are uncomfortable, always, is definitely a bad idea. People do it though, which is why so many people take anti-anxiety drugs.

Much love to you and all those around you.

Adrianne said...

To clarify a couple of things:

1. No one is dying just yet. It would appear at this point that another round of unpleasant treatment is in store, but if so hopefully that will produce a lasting cure.

2. I wasn't suggesting that people need to act out all the emotions they have as they have them -- I was simply suggesting that it's better to acknowledge one's emotions to oneself as they come up instead of pretending that the emotions aren't there or feeling that it's somehow wrong to have whatever it is that's coming up. Many people in our society try to shoo away the "negative" emotions -- fear, anger, sadness, etc. -- which is where I think the anti-anxiety drugs come in.

Barbara said...
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Barbara said...

I hope all of you involved in this health challenge can acknowledge your emotions and then let them go. This Buddhist way of looking at life makes a lot of sense. After all, life really is the here and now, not what is past, not what's to come. So enjoy each other through smiles, tears, anger, or whatever comes up. I'm sure your strength and resiliency will be an asset on the coming journey. I will be sending positive thoughts in your direction!