The sun had already set as I drove home from Gainesville with my son. In the dark we talked about Meena, his daughter, throwing herself face down on the grass after preschool in the morning. She was dramatic, yet quiet. Alas, she couldn’t catch the butterfly. In that moment, I tried to distract her:
“Do you see that the pear you dropped on the ground earlier is gone? The squirrel must have eaten it in his hands like this, and said, ‘Oh, thank you Meena for my present.’ ” I said looking down at her.
Intrigued with the idea, she stood and entered the porch. “I’m not taking my shoes off,” she announced as she lightly stomped to the end of the porch and threw herself face down again, reached her arm out and nonchalantly slung a plastic dump truck across the porch. I announced out loud what I thought she was feeling.
“Meena is so frustrated because she didn’t catch the butterfly. She has to let out her emotions by lying down and throwing the car.”
She looked back around at me, almost smiling, as if I had understood. Somehow having another person validate what she felt strongly in her body was sufficient. Or perhaps giving words to the experience was helpful to her. She stood and carried on in a happy mood. Walking to the back room, she accounced to her dad, my son, “I’m frustrated because I couldn’t catch a butterfly.”
Quite an accomplishment for a three-year-old.
In the car, as we sped along in the dark, I relayed to my son, this “emotional outburst” part of the story he hadn’t seen earlier. My son said, “The most prominent problem I face—all my friends face—is how to deal with emotions.”
I was surprised by his response. Most people can’t succinctly state a core truth about themselves; fewer can identify a universal human problem. But he articulated an important truth for most of us. A fact that has left many of us severely handicapped in living a fulfilling life, and often running away from relationships (and ourselves) in fear of emotions.
Yet We Hanker to Experience Emotions
As much as we say we dislike emotions and are lost when we’re confronted with our own, all of us live to experience emotion.
This is the great divide—the insurmountable dichotomy of life: We must have emotions and don’t know what to do with them.
We feel alive by experiencing emotion. So we listen to music to give expression to our emotions. We watch sports to vent our desire to dominate and release bouts of anger, frustration, loss, and glorious triumph. We jump from the edge of bridges clipped to an elastic cord that whips us back high into the air just before touching “ground,” to feel terror and redemption. Television and movies allow us to experience emotions in other‘s lives. We follow the narratives of artists, politicians, actors—we have many heroes—to live through them. We travel the world in hope of experiencing grand emotions.
In all ways we continually feed our need to experience emotion. In this search, we’re especially interested when we can experience emotion at a distance.
We say our pursuit is the search for happiness and fulfillment. And indeed, it is. But we want the emotional experience in a way we can contain it and have it move through us the way we deem comfortable and safe.
Even the adrenal rush of extreme sports or activities, which floods us with emotion, is “safe” because the emotions aren’t part of an exchange in a “live” relationship, and these emotions don’t call into question my own sense of self or self worth.
Relationships—the living, breathing realm of our true emotions—have an uncanny ability to show us the best and worst of ourselves and life.
It’s damn terrifying.
Unfortunately we must face our terror and understand that until we do, and gain mastery of our emotions we will be victims of suffering and a lackluster life as we grope for meaning, our purpose, belonging, and genuine love.
We can gain mastery of emotions so they course through our bodies in the ways we consciously cultivate. Ways in which we are enhanced, elevated, enriched, and enlivened. This is our nature, our desire, our calling, our sacred goal.
As with any challenge, it’s so much more fulfilling to take up the path with others. So, too, is the path of the heart. Beyond that, our subject: emotions and relationships, requires people.
None of us will make progress without the other.
But even one person can shift the generational mis-imprinting of our diseased relationship with emotions, or stop a declining relational spiral in a family, group, or community. Why not be that person?
In the next blog:
When emotions in our relationships get “real,” we do not want to experience them.