The Tyranny of Feelings

As passionate as I can be about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.

When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World

In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as surely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.

Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:

“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.

Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live

The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.

I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings, that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as the sense of power may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. (I’m such a mess. Why in the world are you following?? Stay with me at your own peril.) Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while she was pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.

When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, and so denied myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy my life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years ago, I took a few lessons in the Alexander Technique, a mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down, really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.

I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.

Why Everybody Else Is Happier Than You

I have a big house, a husband who sees to my needs, a boy I adore, and friends who’ve got my back. But these things are just the facts of a fuller story that no one in the know would envy. Who would think that I who have it all, by appearances, can understand why Facebook famously feeds depression? The Happiest Virtual Place On Earth can feel like one endless reminder of the Things That Are Missing in your life. After a ginger foray into that part of social media this year, I found myself leaving the screen disturbed – and sad – eventually realizing the feelings came from wounds that have yet to heal. Offline, I look at the people around me. My single friends would give an arm to be married. Those with families of their own each have their burden, ones I am grateful to have been spared. So why do we remain convinced others were dealt better cards, when we are every one of us in need of support and understanding?

happier-disney-castle

Reasons We’re Sure Everybody Is Happier Than Us*

1. We are unsatisfied with our lot, no matter how it turns. The human condition is not, in the language of mathematicians, an equation but an inequality: My life < The Ideal. A literary metaphor would make us an unfinished story, which is why our hearts beat for more. More money, more time, more joy, more toys, more love. We bring to the table our fractured perspective, limited understanding, hopes conceived of an unresolved past. We will never, by the bootstraps of our humanness, be able to complete our relationships because we can’t complete ourselves.

2. Our sense of entitlement. Conflict in these imperfect relationships gives us away and pride declares, “I deserve better. He owes me appreciation, recognition. She should’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.” Disgruntled where we are, how nice and green is the grass on the other side.

3. The myth of perfectionism. I borrow some insights from Alain Botton, author of the NY Times article Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, on our misguided notions of love because nowhere else do we so generously spin our fantasies of happiness. In a recent roundtable entitled How We Choose Our Spouses, Botton spoke of the reaction his article had garnered:

What was interesting was that people were overwhelming relieved. Look, it’s like telling people you will have an unhappy life…I think that often we suffer from a burden of shame around how difficult it is that we find it to live, to love, to make good choices…And the reason that there is something oppressive in being told that only perfection will do as the basis of marriage, is that so many of our marriages, under that kind of judgment, have to seem below par and it can seem rather punitive and oppressive as if we have failed to measure up to a standard which most of us simply cannot measure up to.

We allow Facebook and blogs to perpetuate the hope in fairy tales, the expectation that we grow up and live happy, photogenic lives.

We should learn to accommodate ourselves to ”wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners…We don’t need people to be perfect in love. We need people to be good enough.

4. Love, according to Botton, is not an impulse of feeling but a skill. It isn’t pay dirt at emotional Roulette but “with all of us deeply broken, a chance of success in love means being able to deal with our brokenness, both inside ourselves and in a partner.” I’d say this truth holds for all our relationships. “Compatibility is ultimately an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be…the precondition of falling in love.” Love is something you work, and often work hard, at. You manage expectations of spouse, friend, self, and life, being able to explain your craziness as you grow in self-awareness. But we somehow believe life doesn’t exact so much effort of those around us.

Jumping off track a bit, let me share that my About page earned 2000 likes this weekend. I didn’t get to the celebration video, a toss-up between Yours Truly kicking up heels to Great Balls of Fire or crooning into the mic in a red dress. So hopefully this will do. Your gestures of affection and regard have meant a great deal to me and I appreciate every one of you. When Facebook gets me down, psh, I’ll just come back to my blog.

*HW won out in the argument with her twin The Grammar Mafia and managed to keep the vernacular with the objective pronoun.

Day of Magic

Voices in my house can be loud lately. Or hushed. Both scare me. I like a happy medium.

When my sister sits in the bathtub in the dark, she tells me she is reading. I am small, not stupid. No reading happens in the dark. And I sense pain coming off of her. At age six, I can smell pain like a bloodhound.

But today is one of those enchanted days. Magic will happen. We are not in the house with loud and hushed voices today. Instead, my parents and I go exploring.

The car smells of Amish country. Cherry pie and coffee. Cows. Cider, apples and cheese.

My parents sing in the front seat. I am still young enough not to cringe, to sing along to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”

My father drives over the hills, past the horses and buggies, so my stomach will drop and I will giggle on each descent. My mother plays the alphabet game with me. My name is Mary. I’m from Missouri and I went to the store to buy muffins.

When we finally arrive at the festival, my friend and I eat cotton candy and roll down the grassy hill. We listen to the music and brave the Tilt-a-Whirl. My world, at home, feels like a Tilt-a-Whirl. I don’t know why all the big people in my house seem to be spinning, hurly-burly. I don’t like it. But today, the Tilt-a-Whirl brings me a gift. I laugh instead of scream. It’s the same feeling but I know now it’s all how I let it in. My six-year-old self is learning, if only by gut instinct.

Tired from sunshine, running, eating, chasing horses, I fall sound asleep. I do not hear my friend leave the car for her front door.

I wake, softly and lightly, from the most delicious sleep. It is dark and the strongest arms I know lift me in the gentlest way possible. As I start to protest, my father whispers, “I’ve got you, Peanut. It’s ok.” That is all I need to know.

I smell no pain today. And I know neither voices nor Tilt-a-Whirls can hurt me—not now.

I wish the moment would last forever, as he lays me gently on my pillow and sleep comes again.

Kristine at candidkay.com

My Fiction Put Me In Debt

Last week my father told me that his local Safeway had closed down, soon to be replaced with a Whole Foods. Normally this news would’ve tickled me – I’m a Whole Foods addict – but I was inexplicably sad. He now scans the weekly store flyers and shops the best deals.

Why did this conversation leave me feeling so tender, so emotional? I realized it was the first time I thought, I want to be like that. Like my father. Careful, methodical. Good with money.

The money story has always been big for me. As a small child I constantly compared myself to others – me often holding the short end of the stick. Everyone else got the best toys, the best food (hot dogs and sugary cereals), the best clothes. I got a dad who seemed to say ‘no’ to everything.

It made me angry. It made me sad. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The really cool things were reserved for other people, and I didn’t belong in that world. I let my money stories form the reality that is my life now. I rebelled against my father’s practical ways, to the point where I’m in major financial debt. I’ve been on a hamster wheel, running to catch up to some elusive ‘there’. And the older I get, the further away ‘there’ seems.

But I’m getting that no one is responsible for this, but me.

I’m the one who’s chosen to interpret my life events as I have. I’m the one who’s assigned deep meaning to old memories…and this meaning no longer serves. For years, I viewed my dad in a certain way because I’d trained myself to see only what supported my stories.

Yeah yeah, he put food on the table and clothed me. Yeah yeah, he was expelled from his homeland of Uganda and lost everything he owned. Yeah yeah, his own father didn’t talk about money.

So what? He should have known better. Been more successful. Given me more. Showed me how to manage my finances.

Right.

These past few months have been transformative. I’ve really felt the emotional impact of my judgment and resentment. And I don’t want to carry them anymore. I know we’re not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves; shame is so disempowering. But I am ashamed of how I’ve held others responsible for the situations I’ve created. I’m now seeing the power I have to choose and to create differently.

My financial situation is a reflection of my inner state. The more I willingly, authentically release blame, the more I find space in my heart, and in my finances. Blame doesn’t have my money in a chokehold anymore. There is room for me to move, to grow, to be free, and to allow the possibility for new, loving relationships with those most dear to me.

Aleya at alohaleya

Insider Looking Out?

I got in a reader request today. She wanted to hear from the insiders. My questions for them:

So who of you grew up feeling you were an insider? Where or what group did you feel a part of? Was it by race or class? If not, was it tiring to maintain your status, stay “cool”? How deeply did this sense of belonging define you? Did you notice those who were outside or on the fringe? Did the easy belonging feed or diminish insecurity? Have you found yourself working harder to fit in anywhere over the years?

Having trouble disabling the likes. Be glad I don’t come to fix your computer or fridge.

Confessions: Mismatching Socks and My Deepest Longing

She doesn’t look for her keys before leaving the house. When you meet her as planned, she’s on time. Out of the car bounds an active kid, shirt ironed, as his mother materializes with a rock of a baby in an easy arm. Of course Mom’s groomed. When did she have time to paint those nails? She greets you with eyes and a smile that say she pulled off a restful night and she’s good to go.

And then there’s me.

Last month on the way out to the park, I realized my socks didn’t match. I had grabbed the white one and the checkered brown from separate piles off the tired path out of bed. I didn’t want to go back upstairs so I shrugged and drove off. The disinterest in the impression I make in public is an offshoot of my young, willful self. I was known for the different-colored socks in junior high – usually one red, the other purple. didn’t see why they had to match. So the asymmetry this time wasn’t so crazy of me, only I am thirty years older. I plainly looked more off than like a trendsetter. The women I know match – even purse to outfit.

And here I am, one of those days. My plans, my body, my emotions don’t seem to…work. I’m a Hyundai from the 70s. Dang ignition’s sluggish and the car gets temperamental when she’s finally on the road. Why the overcast view of the week ahead, the brooding storm clouds in my spirit? My son’s laughter makes its way to me through a thick wall of emotional static. I want to really see him but need to clear my circuits. I pry loose the helpless confession. Discontent and fear. Not sure which wins out but there they are, wreaking havoc. I wish this were different, wish that came easier – and I fear they won’t. I redesign my life in my head.

The nerve. How many people wouldn’t jump for this life? But hold on. Can we say this? Can we compare lives like we do houses? We don’t know all the stuff that goes on in a home, in human hearts. We all have closets we keep shut, some locked. Apparently Superman wasn’t so special – some of us have x-ray vision too. Last week someone who had been very kind and friendly to my family decided I was too imperfect for her and her circle. The ax fell from nowhere. I’d had no inkling I had been under scrutiny, especially because I had not seen her at all this year until a week before she wielded her hatchet. I had never uttered a bad word about her or anyone we knew. In any case, I somehow wasn’t good enough for her. Well Super Woman, here’s some more ammunition for you. Days like this, I in fact do remember my textbook Christian answers. I’ve taught the Bible. I know who I am and Whose I am. And I still feel like a failure, precisely because I know better. It’s not low self-esteem. I believe we are all full of ego. Why is compassion something we have to work on? “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one commandment, not two. We are told to love others as seriously as we take our own needs. If only I were more grateful, really grateful for all I have and for those who love and need me. I could disable the discontent. I am responsible for the perspective I take and how I respond when life seems to move against the grain of my hopes. I ache in my fallenness.

I’ve thought hard, blogging the past year, about what keeps us shuffling forward on the journey. Hope. Without it, tomorrow is nothing and closes in on today. I disagree that love is man’s greatest longing. Unless you’re Daddy Warbucks, all your love for me won’t keep food on my table and put my son through college. Hope is the picture you paint in your head of yourself and those you cherish in a better place. Ironically, hope is what drives you in your plans to kill yourself. Yes, I dare say because I was there as a teen. Bottomed out, you are so miserable you trust that anything will be better than where you are. What gets us through our daily fears is the hope of a good living, a happy family, improved health. You keep on through another round of chemo, holding on to the brighter picture ahead. But it’s a deeper kind of hope we nurse. Assurance of redemption, that our sighs and disappointments will not merely lead out to fresh air that makes the vault of our past feel like a bad dream. But that we will one day see – whether in this life or the next – the storyline to our suffering. We want to see the writing on the walls of our despair, know that we haven’t lived senseless years. We pray God or whatever we trust in will make right the wrongs, show mercy for our transgressions and vindicate us where we suffer. I hate waste, of time especially, and remind myself of the truth that’s found its way as a popular aphorism. I don’t want to waste my sufferings. I listen for the lessons they have for me. Onward and upward? My God makes this possible because He wastes nothing.