“How are you feeling?”
Depending on the chapter in my life, my response to that question has been excitement, anxiety, or downright queasiness. It’s rarely easy to talk about “that emotion thing,” even for those who are the most comfortable in their own skin. The distance between our own hearts and those of others can seem an acre or more, making it terrifying to open our mouths and communicate what’s going on inside us. As Michael Card puts it,
The space between ourselves sometimes
Is more than the distance between the stars.
And so, too often my response is to seal up like an oyster, pretending the things I’m sure I’m feeling aren’t really there. It’s safe in here. It’s quiet.
Except for the voices in my heart. They’re not so quiet, unfortunately.
Like many grown-up people my age, I spent some time in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. I can’t remember how often, or for how long, but I have vivid memories of the gentle conversations Fred Rogers would have with his friends, whether stuffed like Daniel Striped Tiger or flesh-and-blood, like Lady Aberlin and Officer Clemmons.
Most of all, I remember Mr. Rogers turning to the camera, looking me directly in the eyes – or so it seemed – and talking to me. It was remarkable. Here was a kind, patient adult – other than my parents – letting me know I mattered and I was worth the time it would take to patiently explain the world. Often, these words gently articulated my feelings, giving me a vocabulary for the swirling mess in my heart, affirming their presence, and telling me over and over, how valid it was to be feeling those things, and how important it would be to respond to them appropriately.
Only when watching the powerful new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor recently did I come to fully appreciate how deliberate Rogers’ intentions were in using this approach – validating children’s emotions by speaking them aloud, giving them the vocabulary with which to understand and explain their emotions, and then knowing what to do with them. Any parent knows this is a regular and constant task that’s never fully accomplished. There are baby steps forward and backward. But it’s worth it.
“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness,” Rogers said, “It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve … It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”
If you’re like me, one of the most important skills you’ve developed as a grown-up person is to find more and more effective ways to lock emotions away, to tuck them safely out of sight so they’re never seen. And, sadly, I suspect that as they go out of sight, they go out of mind, and we start to forget we’re even having them.
But we can never quite do it, can we?
We are feeling creatures, whether that emotion is as direct as anger or fright, or as murky and mysterious as jealousy or bewilderment, or the longing for something we can’t quite express that leads us to yearn for the wholeness found in Christ. Whatever the case, these emotions need to be spoken about in order to be understood, accepted, and processed.
These are the words we need to speak.
Not only does speaking them aloud acknowledge that we’re even having these emotions, but it also sets the stage for connection, empathy, and ultimately, healing. Maybe you’ve experienced this with a child of your own. There’s a certain embarrassment factor that comes with admitting they’re having a “negative” emotion like anger or fear. In such cases, it’s better to just tuck that feeling away and pretend everything is “fine.” Shame hides in the shadowy places, though, and in order for us to accept our emotions, we must drag them out into the light.
I’ve found that sharing stories together as a family has been a beautiful way to shine a light on these emotions. Story reveals the presence and validity of all manner of emotions, and not only sparks conversations about them, but shows us they’re worthy of time and attention. We’ve been reading Kate DiCamillo’s novel Flora & Ulysses recently. In addition to being side-splittingly funny, the first-person narration allows us a poignant glimpse inside main character Flora Buckman’s head as she processes the complex emotions swimming inside. Late in the book, one such passage illustrates the way stories provide a mirror to our own emotional landscape:
“Flora closed her eyes. She saw nothing but darkness. And into this darkness slowly swam the other Dr. Meescham’s giant squid, moving sadly along, flailing its eight lonely and enormous arms.
I came to find you.
What was it with William Spiver and the words he said to her? Why did they make her heart squinch up?”
There’s something that happens in written stories, the novel, the picture book, the poem, that forces us to come face to face with our feelings. We understand and appreciate our own psychological geography by seeing how someone else is processing and responding to their own struggles.
Understanding ourselves is a lifelong journey of discovery. But it’s one worth taking. And in the process, a vital step is speaking about our emotions. Stories allow us to read them, to speak them and hear them, and to acknowledge that they have a place in our lives.
We must speak these words.