On Feeling

Yesterday, I had what my British husband calls a “rubbish” day. I returned home after  running around, working on my master’s thesis, interviewing people only to feel depleted and sad. Despite my great hopes, it ended up being a day that felt more alienating and confusing than life-giving and clarifying. All I wanted to do was eat a piece of carrot cake on the couch and cry. I felt lonely and uninspiring.

The previous night, I had cried myself to sleep after reading a New York Times piece on the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. It gripped my heart, and I allowed the flood of emotion to wash over me. I made space for what felt like human grief. This universal grief at the sight of suffering in the world is holy; it keeps our culture from becoming cold, numbed, and mechanized. Jack held me then and stroked my forehead. And together, we held our hope for the healing of the world.

Yesterday night, I received the same care and tenderness from Jack. He wiped my tears away with a cotton handkerchief and made me take sips of water. He related to my feelings and held me again. But I felt guilty for crying so much, crying two days in a row. Crying over the pain of the world felt noble. Crying over my own feelings felt self-indulgent. My feelings of unworthiness suddenly bumped up against the great suffering of the world. The two are so wildly different, one painfully particular, the other vast and existential; my mind could not hold them both at once. The demands were too divergent. One demanded action. The other demanded rest. How could I feel so “rubbish” for something so small in the scheme of things?

My feelings and the world’s challenges are not equal, but we can hold these realities in tension with one another. Instead of writing off our bad days and heartaches, we can lean into them and allow ourselves the space to release them. True, my bad day paled in comparison to the ongoing suffering of others experiencing grief at the loss of a loved one, systematic oppression, genocide, or poverty. That will always be true. Feeling unworthy or disappointed or having a rubbish day will never be as painful as the suffering that is caused by ongoing injustice.

Our personal problems, when they relate to how we feel as a human being in the world, no matter our circumstance, will always be less urgent and of a smaller magnitude.What is also true, I believe, is that every human being experiences disappointment, loneliness, shame, anger, frustration. We should neither discount our joy nor our pain, both of which are a part of the hardwired spectrum of human emotion. Rubbish days will bump up against worldly tragedy. That is unavoidable. The key is to remain attuned to the structures of feeling unique to each.

To ignore our own sensitivity and the signs that we need to cry for our own hearts or in grief for the state of the world, is to ignore the sanctity of the human condition. To honor our feelings that swell unpredictably and rely on one another is to honor the importance of compassion in all its forms.

In what seems sometimes like weakness, we actually cultivate strength. We can, through our moments of vulnerability, recover a sense of softness that is precisely what the world needs. Softness, empathy, compassion, care, connection can heal the world, as much as it  has the power to heal our hearts and our relationships. In order to approach the world with kindness, we must approach ourselves and our loved ones with kindness. If we resist this deeply human need within ourselves, we grow numb and hardened, the sorts of people who avoid both the truth of their own experiences and the laments of oppressed people.

Today, I woke up, had a cup of coffee, brushed myself off, and got back to work. The sun was shining and the air was crisp, autumnal, the sign of my favorite season. Jack texted me and said, “Let’s just go live in a small house in the country.” I replied, “I was actually thinking something more like a hermitage.”

We laughed together because we both know that the human experience is an endless journey of retreat then engagement, contemplation then action, feeling then moving forward, being cared for then caring, and finally, carrying on with greater resilience.

You may feel “rubbish” somedays, and that is okay. It means that tomorrow when you are warmed by the sun, or you witness an act of kindness, or you celebrate something truly incredible with a loved one, or you are in the position of supporting another, you will experience that more fully, too. You will have the courage and emotional intelligence to respond to human need with grace.