In recent months, I have been emerging from a complex season of loss and grief. The feelings ebb and flow, come and go, and mix and mingle with joy and gratitude. This grief experience is common to all humans, if we live long enough and are honest with ourselves. No one escapes. The catalysts are many – from the death of one we love, to failed relationship, to dreams unrealized, to watching people we love make self destructive choices, and on and on and on. But what we do with these experiences can take many a path.
I am slowly meandering my way through a challenging and insightful book by Brene Brown, author and researcher on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. The Gifts of Imperfection is full of research-based information on people who live full and satisfying lives – something Brown refers to as a “wholehearted life”. I am finding this book both fascinating and hopeful.
One section that particularly caught my attention and has traveled around inside my heart and mind for weeks now is best summed up with this quote, “There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.” The temptation and desire to numb the dark is a very real one. The methods of anesthetizing our painful feelings are myriad – busyness, substances, doing good works, electronic distractions, over-eating/exercising/spending…, and the list could go on and on and on.
As I’ve lived through recent months, the truth of this finding has shown itself. During grief’s most intense visitations, I sometimes fight back and just want the feelings to go away, NOW. When I battle them with a vengeance, I either wind up in a very anxious place or a very numb place – with the side effect of missing out on the beautiful gifts of peace and joy.
But when I am willing to sit with loss, give it space, be honest about the source and shed tears of sorrow, there is ultimate cleansing and healing power. It is exhausting yet freeing in its’ own way. It takes even more energy and anxiety to push down, hold back, or shove away such raw human emotion. Fleeing from and numbing the painful emotions resulted in the unintended consequence of also missing out and desensitizing myself to the beauty and joy all around.
In the realm of American Christian faith, there seems to be a prevailing attitude and hope that we can and should experience all of the beauty and joy of life without the sorrow and grief side. And if we can’t put on a happy face, then often our faith is questioned. I am not exactly sure where that idea came from – after all Jesus lived the entire spectrum of emotions. There could be no resurrection without crucifixion.
So I am learning that in order to deeply experience the joys of life, I must be willing and intentional to feel the disappointments, sorrows and grief of this journey. “Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy”, says Brown. I have to say I agree. We can’t have one without the other.