I was about to take ibuprofen for pain arising from egregiously misaligned discs in my neck. But I hesitated and did not. I reminded myself there were other interventions that might help as well or better. A little temple massage, neck and shoulder stretches, a restful fifteen minutes with good music, a walk in refreshing evening air, a warm shower with aromatherapy. Or I could just put up with it again, go on as I usually do. It wasn’t critical to erase pain just because it was nagging in the background of my day. I could deal with it.
I don’t have to cave into a perceived misery; I can manage things, accept unpleasantness. Acknowledge it, adapt via my life skills toolkit, and move on.
Then one night around two in the morning I awakened worried about a couple of family members. It was clear there had been a failure to release them to heavenly forces for their best care and my better state. It took a bit of regrouping–a hearty prayer, creative visualization that included each of them moving along starlit pathways within the vast lucent darkness. With many guardians keeping watch. Bound for their own safe, purposeful journeys and destinations…and I soon slept.
Emotional distress may seem harder to address–perhaps because it is intangible and not always easy to identify. It can dig into our consciousness, stimulate physical distress signals. We have a lot going on inside us, and emotional activity churns and hums along without our permission, for the most part. And follows us into sleep as witnessed by dreams–and nocturnal wakefulness–that attempt to tie up loose ends.
One thing I’ve learned working with human beings for decades: even moderate discomfort is anathema to the vast majority. It is considered at the least an irksome pest and at worst, a potential scourge to banish. It is avoided as if it has super power to upend and dislocate, even harm, one’s life. And if it can manifest that kind of impact, it clearly must be stopped, right? Eradicated, if at all possible. Immediately. And off goes the alarm.
Our variety of discomforts is broad and can be complex. From childhood tantrums to youthful testiness to an older person’s litany of woes, discomfort appears and behaves in many ways. It turns out that one person’s misery is a passing blip to another–but the other person can then readily list unique issues that do create havoc. A few significant discomforts I heard over and over as a counselor include anxiety, grief and loss, depression, loneliness, anger, pain (spiritual, emotional or physical). A few of the lesser ones are annoyance, impatience, frustration, boredom.
The solution most often chosen by an afflicted person (if the thing cannot be flat-out denied) is to engage in any activity that will shake off the offensive feeling. This is because feelings trigger a chain of subtle, even mysterious internal responses. If a feeling is even perceived as undesirable, a warning starts to blare. And it may seem not unreasonable if your mind (or body) is, in fact, being aggravated by something that may be hazardous. So that discomfort now feels like a burden or even a threat–a thing that must disappear.
The question is: what if it is unnecessary to trigger the nervous system alarms? Maybe it’s bears a closer look first. Perhaps it can be alleviated by a pleasant saunter, a hard run or a good talk with a friend. Or it can be tolerated–just felt– until it fades of its own accord. Because an interesting fact about emotions is that with limited to no attention, they tend to mount, peak and then simply back off. Eventually they can dissipate entirely. The more you feed them, the bigger and flashier they can get, like a fire or a mammoth wave. And then people understandably feel overwhelmed or at least well saturated. (We can do the last to ourselves with a favorite song, for instance–especially if we feel heartache that seeks sympathetic engagement.)
I think it’s a good idea to be present with–pause with—our personal experience of emotions. They are gifts to us, a vital part of human hard wiring. They provide information about the environment, others, and ourselves. About what we need and want. As our five senses provide us with a physical telegraphing of data, our feelings addtionally provide us with emotional survival. As difficult as they may seem at times, they are not out to get us but to assist us.
Grief, for example, cannot be denied for long without having a boomerang effect. It will come back at you one day in some unexpected, more distressful way if you stomp it down, box it up. It can hound you and initiate depression or anger or a sense of being lost, even abandoned. Loneliness may need to manifest in melancholy longings that bring tears awhile; a common experience is the hard awareness of, our naked confrontation with our singularity in the world. Boredom, another harsh state of being for some, might rather be embraced; it can lead to brainstorming that inspires positive innovation.
Anxiety, that live wire of nerves set on high is a frequent complaint. But that twitchy adrenalin can be harnessed to provide extra mental energy and forward motion to push through triggering situations–like stage fright can provide the oomph for better performance. Fear, however, is so primal an instinct that to not heed it is unadvisable. It asks for respect faster than some feelings when the amygdala detects, then responds to some sense of danger. A number of processes contribute to the feeling of being threatened–i.e., fear– and what we do with it matters a great deal. Ignoring it is not the best so we complete a lightning fast threat assessment. And find a solution if required. It is possible the triggers are actually benign and something else is impacting your perception.
It is well advised to be mindful of what we feel; striking a happy balance is our challenge. At some point you may need to probe further, find out why there is a continuing problem with whatever the issue is. Our feelings originate and culminate in subtle and complicated dances. They are choreographed by the brain’s chemical responses–norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin–as well as body’s–adrenalin, cortisol. But they also include a lot of direction from highly individual experience: our perception of things, memories of similar events, the focus we give the current experience and each person’s response. And ultimate reactivity. We’re at the top of the food chain for good reason. We have choices regarding what we think and do.
At the beginning, I mentioned people often want to run from discomfort. Everyone knows this is a temporary fix. We know it but still try it. Our culture supports and adheres to this attitude and action. More distraction is generally considered better; we are inundated, a daily bombardment of sensory and mental stimulation. People can and do spend maximum waking hours on their PC, watching television, using their phones and tablets. Any time there is something we wish to ignore, there are a thousand and one ways in which we can do it. Tune out, seek a different channel. Revert to another mind numbing option. Emphasis on lack of feeling as that means “no bother, no fuss.”
And we have such pills. Give us one, please, or if prescribed, give us lots of refills. Sedate us, above all, it seems.
I was looking for face lotion with SPF15 in an unfamiliar well-stocked store when I found myself stalled in the analgesic and cold medicine aisle. I really looked it over out of surprise. It was a shock how much was available. Cheap and expensive. Brand name and generic. The packaging was complicated. The box colors were vivid. There were so many shelves that my eyes grew weary of it all. Obviously pain medications especially are sought. They make money. And prescription pain medication–for physical and mind– does even better because if we do not have to, we will not be uncomfortable much less suffer a bit more.
I sometimes wonder if we aren’t as a species gradually losing our coping skills. Our human capacities for stamina and persistence. Endurance. If we haven’t already forgotten much of how to deal with life’s common little dramas, the frequent but moderate tests as well as demanding, character building trials. Or has character, in the old fashioned sense, fallen out of vogue? Have we fully bought the tagline that it should be “fast, easy, efficient” as if the first two are needed for the last to happen? What about the time it takes for a small human being to become a big one, all the skills that ought to be mastered? The engagement and effort it takes for a youth to become gradually more informed and less gullible? The critical thinking and decision making that nonetheless go hand in hand with failures and faux pas that accompany accomplishment and victory? All of this may even lead to–surely does more often than not–wisdom.
The stalwart, resilient human being doesn’t have to keep a stiff upper lip, I suppose. But we might be better off realizing life’s variety and learning to adapt, to strengthen our selves. Not escaping. Denying. Those who thrive–no matter the discomfort or deeper suffering– do. The choice made to accept the tender soreness tells us we are alive as much as delight and contentment do. Not feeling is a mark of being rendered unconsciousness by substances, being severely traumatized or being a psychopath. Not such a rosy array.
I say we could learn a thing of two just being with our feelings. We don’t need to borrow others’ emotions from gossipy media or raging headlines. Empathy is one thing–a compassionate understanding of what another feels is crucial to kind, effective cohabitation. But we don’t need more vicarious emotion. We have our own to help us navigate our way, to enrich our personal lives and others’. That disappointment you feel when you don’t get the promotion? Feel it to own it as yours; let it then spur you toward other goals, jobs. The anxiety you feel before giving a performance? Acknowledge it, see it is energy to provide excitement and power behind your words or actions–and perhaps to aid a supportive response to another who feels fear. That deep sadness you still feel when seeing a reminder of the parent or friend you recently lost? Hold it close, for it is a measure of your love and their impact on your soul. Their absence lingers to allow you to fully grieve, accept the reality of loss and release sorrow so you can continue living. And anger? Yes, own this, too, identify it, learn its origins. For behind anger is most often hurt or a sense of disrespect and when you see it for what it is, anger weakens as the truth come forward. You can experience anger and not lose but gain a greater perspective, thus inviting change as needed.
So why decide first and foremost that it is better to escape our discomforts? They tell us part of our story, offer clues to who we are and what is going on in the intricate operations of our personalities. What is the use of sleeping though life, of numbing our senses, mind and heart? We were given the right equipment. We are charged with keeping it in good order. We were gifted with an opportunity to be one hundred percent alive, not half-present, partly attuned. And if we find it very hard and need helping hand, locate then use that support. There are other people out there who get this human living pretty well, and who have ideas to offer. Then you can better care for your feelings. And make this a well-used life.
Welcome or less welcome emotions: remember they’re like road signs alerting us to what’s ahead. A tricky serpentine curve, an area that may bring rock slides, a road that offers stops and starts and turn-offs and full exits. Pay attention to the whole experience. Be open to discovering curious sights yet to be seen.
I have my own moments. I just today crossed paths with a person one of my adult children loved and now is no longer with, has not been for a few years. As we waved across the room, then talked with one another, there arose within me a quiet warmth that also awakened fond memories. And then a dulled yet palpable hurt around that loss. A wisp of sorrow that the relationship had not lasted. I still feel it. I recall many meals happily shared, grandchildren being born, enthusiastic hikes, interesting talks. But I still hope the future unfolds well for the person. For all involved. I accept the beauty of what was, that even remains, but also the truth of changes. It isn’t easy loving a child’s partner and then having to let go–no one asked me, no one warned me enough and no one said it would hurt so much. But that is a part of things. And this moment is what exists today so I exchanged a warm hug and well wishes.
The rest of that scenario was this: we were all there for a granddaughter’s eight grade graduation. Our precious grandchild, their child. The wonder of it is what I still get to keep: the respect and care we somehow still share as it is woven with the lives of grandchildren I adore. And so the bittersweet may retain a tinge of bitter but it is far, far more sweet. And home I went, thoughtful and glad.
Feelings are not fair or unfair. They just are, they come, they go and sometimes make a home in our lives. Don’t let unwanted guests set up camp; show them the door after they are seen and given basic respect. As for me, they all may also become a poem or story, a prayer or song, a reaching, giving and receiving. Such richness in it so I’m claiming it all. Like any other, I have suffered, celebrated, failed, been afraid and been brave, ached and mended, shared joy and shared grief, wished for more than I might have and found this life good. This panoply of feeling–magnificent array of experience that guides me–informs me I am here, breathing. Let me remain fully awake until wakefulness here is no longer needed.
(The featured picture used is a print by my daughter, Naomi J Falk. Her website is: http://www.naomijfalk.com.)
NOTE: If you are experiencing a persistent or high level of emotional and mental distress, such as ongoing depression and hopelessness, please contact a professional for help.