In the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven – to plant and uproot, to tear down and build, to love and to hate. But I think it’s more accurate to say all of this can happen together in the same season. What we consider to be opposing activities can be done simultaneously.
We think we can either weep or laugh, but how many times have we done that with one Kleenex? Isn’t there an occasion where we have danced as part of our mourning, or surrendered as we searched? And isn’t it possible to abhor something – or at least be really angry – while simultaneously feeling love and appreciation?
A Guest House of Emotions
I believe the act of honoring distinct emotions at the same time demands an emotional sophistication that comes with two things: age and heartache. Even after decades of therapy and introspection, I am only now learning the art of teasing apart a web of emotions and letting each feeling sit as it is, resisting the temptation to designate one incompatible with the other as if my heart was a kind of online dating service.
The 13th century poet Rumi considered the human heart a kind of guest house. He writes,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Skip the Labels
In my work as a chaplain, I often hear people discount a strong emotion, like anger, fearing that it will cancel out another, like gratitude. Most of us have learned somewhere that it is impossible to be simultaneously pissed off and grateful. We’ve inherited this simplistic system of assigning negative labels to emotions like anger, grief, worry, and frustration, and positive labels to emotions like joy, gratitude, love, and hope. Our calculations are such that one “bad” emotion will annul a “good” one. The reality is that emotions aren’t like batteries in a TV remote control. They don’t have to be assembled in the right direction in order for power to come on.
I spoke with a man the other day whose wife was just diagnosed with dementia and is starting to decline.
I recognized the sadness in his eyes. “But I have nothing to complain about,” he said to me. “I have so many blessings in my life.”
I tried to tell him that his anger and frustration can exist alongside his gratitude. He didn’t have to pick one over the other.
I suppose I picked up on his resistance to name the “negative” feelings because holding conflicting emotions together is something I’ve been struggling with myself lately.
Holding Rage and Respect Together
Three years ago, I underwent a procedure for depression that left me with enduring cognitive challenges and lasting PTSD symptoms. I am gradually healing but I still feel surges of anger at the physicians who prescribed my treatment and promote it as safe. Despite my best attempts to convince myself that I have no right to feel this way, the fury often bubbles to the surface and makes itself heard in other ways.
Naming and honoring my rage is terribly uncomfortable because it is pointed at physicians whom I have grown to respect and like as human beings. Even though I adamantly disagree with their medical model and philosophies, I can’t indifferently write them off because I know and like them. So I attempt to hold rage and respect simultaneously in my heart, one day at a time, and ask God to guide my conversations with them. Like the man with the wife who is declining, I have to remember that my guest house is big enough for gratitude and a crowd of sorrows.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
In 1996 Bishop Juan Gerardi, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City and head of the archdiocesan office of human rights, initiated the Recovery of Historical Memory project to conduct an investigation of the war crimes that occurred in the civil war in Gautemala. He found that 90 percent of the 200,000 noncombatant deaths and disappearances were caused by the Guatamalan military. Two days after presenting the report he was assassinated in his home.
About his investigation, he wrote: “Unless we know the truth the wounds of the past will stay open and cannot be healed…..Truth is the primary word, and is what will break this cycle of violence and death and open up the future of hope and light for all.”
The truth will heal a nation as well as a soul. Every time I have been brave enough to name something and feel it, the weight of its burden always lessens. It doesn’t matter if the person I am talking to doesn’t understand, doesn’t agree, or refuses to take any accountability. The act of saying, “I got hurt, and my pain is real” is immensely freeing. In legitimizing your emotion, you increase your odds of being able to let it go and to love more freely again.
A guesthouse isn’t a permanent residence. The ability to let go of certain feelings allows us to feel our emotions in all their intensity. There is some preventative work on our part to make sure certain feelings won’t build concrete abodes in our heart. There always exists the danger of getting too absorbed in rage, jealousy, grief, and shame. But the first step is simply to allow whatever comes without judgement – to celebrate the seasons together.