Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!

What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

Looking Forward

As a people, we love looking back, but looking back is a mixed bag. The elderly love to reminisce, as I learned when I worked in long-term care. You cannot turn around in a long-term care facility without seeing a copy of a magazine dedicated to reminiscing! I have wondered if there is a hidden, archetypal truth in that folks with dementia tend to forget in reverse – the newer things first and the oldest things last.

looking backAs a trauma survivor, I have a problem in that trauma impacts memory. In layman’s terms, trauma is a terrible file clerk. Our trauma impacted brain essentially misfiles memories to make room for coping with the crisis at hand. Unless and until we address the impact of our trauma, it will seem to us that we don’t remember much about our past because our memories are hidden in the wrong file cabinet. As we go through the work of therapy, our memories gradually return because we have hired a new file clerk to sort through the tangled mess left by the trauma clerk. I know this to be true because I have experienced it.

For some of us, however, our memories and the past they represent become a prison. The door to our cell is unlocked and we are free to walk out, but we keep pulling it closed. I believe this happens because it is much easier to see ourselves as the enraged, offended party whose life circumstances are outside our control. The problem is that perspective, while perhaps necessary for a time as we come to understand how we got in the situation in which we find ourselves, becomes a self-imposed prison that limits and eventually destroys us. Many of us have seen the angry, red-faced protester screaming for peace, unable to move past their anger at past injustices to effectively work for the peace they deeply desire. looking forward

If we are going to be the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi suggested, we are going to have to surrender our obsession with the past. To do that, we have to give up all hope of the past ever being different than it was. We can, and should, clearly state what was wrong about the past so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past in the future, but we cannot continue to dwell in the past if we are going to have a future. To do so is to leave that ineffective file clerk in charge of the office and continue to repeat the same mistakes, all the while mystified as to why nothing changes! There is a word for that letting go of the past, that choosing not to spend all of our time seeking to change what cannot be changed and demanding reparations that will never be paid. That word is forgiveness.