I drove home tonight, my two sons asleep in the back seat. At five and seven years old, I was astonished at how they proudly took the initiative to organize and complete the goodie bag stuffing all on their own at my work this evening. The slow sounds of their heavy sleep and whoosh of lights dancing off the ocean on our drive home make it impossible for me to keep from smiling. My eyes still have their satisfied chlorine burn from our family swim at the YMCA as I look out in the distance taking a moment to sink even deeper into the goodness of this moment. I am looking forward to writing tonight and cozying up in bed next to my husband. We have a good thing, and I am proud I learned the relating skills necessary to create such a kind, truth telling and inspiring partnership. Life is good.
And life, at this moment, is also not good. Anger and heartache also swell in my chest. I called home this week. It didn’t go well, and it caught me off guard. I felt so hurt…I still do. Learning to feel the burn of unmet longing and disappointment without being a total asshole has taken me a lot of years to master. When I first entered therapy, twenty years ago now, I thought I would learn how to structure my life so I would feel happy all the time. Never would life catch me off guard with heartache like it did this week. Life should be so orderly that messy falling apart should not happen, and avoiding all forms of messy relating is a measure of success. I wanted to be like the Breck girl, all smiles and silky hair. What happens when we let go of needing life to be so god damn breezy? What happens when we stop being seduced by the marketing machine and stop wanting something other than our real life? When we do, we come alive.
What makes life meaningful is growing the awareness of the way feelings move through our body. Feelings have an electrical dance. Our work is growing the nervous system skills to stay human and self-reflective in the middle of that vibratory dance or storm. When we can’t, and the feelings become too much, we huddle up with others to make it through the emotional storm. When our inner voice says “Oh sweetheart, I am so sorry” instead of “Get over it!” the compass is finally calibrated. Life’s storms can cast us about without wrecking the ship or causing us to be lost forever.
According to recent psychological research (by David Barlow, Steven Hayes and others) one of the main causes of many psychological problems is the habit of emotional avoidance. –Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good
Remember that Louis C.K. interview with Conan Obrien from a few years ago? He talked about existential loneliness and our need to fill up the blank spaces in our lives lest we feel something uncomfortable. Here it is.
He is being funny but he really is speaking to how sitting with the bittersweetness of our lives is rich and where most of our existential meaning comes from when we learn to sit still with it. But feeling this Louis C.K. kind of deep is not for the faint of heart. Let’s face it, we have become comfort junkies in American culture and that comfort is deadening us and sometimes emotionally constipating us, making our anxiety and depression worse, not better. I get some people have big hurts that may feel too hard to face alone and for many therapy clients, their anxiety and depression leads them on a transformational journey that is deep and honorable. I have not found many people who are living large, high vitality and meaningful lives who weren’t transformed by pain.
The agony of my call home awakens a deeper and more genuine kind of gratitude in me tonight. I am feeling beyond the surface of my heart three-dimensional in all directions – a Louis C.K. “ball like a bitch” kind. Sometimes only great sorrow awakens deep gratitude. Emotional pain is like the pain of scaling the face of a mountain and standing at the top in that subliminal space, we can’t believe our eyes when we arrive, and we feel like the luckiest person alive.