To Feel or Not To Feel

An old friend reminded me the other night that it is better (though not easier) to feel what you’re feeling, experience the pain of it if it’s painful, than to pretend not to feel any part of what is oppressing you.   Feeling your feelings is an essential part of processing, healing, moving forward, being respectful and kind to yourself. Which seems counter-intuitive when you feel like shit.   It was good to be reminded of this pillar of humaneness.  If we practice not feeling what we’re feeling, how do we remain empathetic to difficult things our loved ones often go through?

I think of the choice to feel or not to feel as closely related to the choice between knowing and not knowing [1].   I think it’s better to feel and to know.  The choice not to feel a given feeling or consider a given fact is often simple denial.   Repressing the feelings your soul is going through, denying things that make it go through turmoil, is a one way ticket on the Miserable Asshole Express, as far as I can tell.   As they say on TV, individual exceptions may apply.   I’m not certainly not advocating no anesthesia before a painful procedure, I like a good anodyne as much as the next agony avoider, but I also see the importance of feeling my feelings and having my thinking informed with as much actual knowledge — and feedback from people I trust —  as possible.

What we feel is often closely related to what we know, or, just as often, to what we don’t know.   I’ve been feeling mostly anger since I learned of the sudden, senseless, premature death of a once very close friend.  He died alone and virtually friendless, in spite of possessing many great and rare qualities that could have made him a good friend to many.   It irked me, in large part, that his mere death, a purely random event two thousand miles away,  compelled me, involuntarily (as far as I could tell) to focus once more on his irremediably painful life of wasted potential.  To me an important piece of working out the puzzle of anger is figuring out exactly why the hell something makes me so mad.  I don’t know a better way of trying to digest things and come out the other side of anger.

I’ve been remembering viscerally, continually, the many years I tried to make the pain-filled solipsist see another perspective, how hard I banged my head against the locked door of his highly intelligent but utterly closed mind.   Part of my anger is at myself, for remaining friends with such an impossible person, expecting the clearly impossible, even after ample proof of its impossibility, not accepting the futility of this abzurd expectation years earlier, not saving myself a decade or two of stressful, energy-sapping adversarial relations with a very unhappy and demanding, yea, toxic, person.

Sometimes something we learn or realize can immediately begin to change our feelings for the better.   We can’t learn this kind of crucial thing without being open to learning, and to our feelings about what we learn.   We can’t feel any differently, can’t get relief from hurt, without additional insight.   Not that learning a better way, or discovering an objective, revealing fact that changes a story,  instantly makes bad feelings go away.   Feelings, bad and good, will always arise and often challenge us.

One insight I was blessed to be given was that sometimes much of what we suffer over is not remotely our fault or our doing.  No less an authority than the Buddha taught that the nature of life in this world involves this kind of impersonal suffering we can’t help but feel personally, from the pain of being attached to things that can vanish at any time.   I don’t know much about Buddha, but I do know that what the fox said in William Steig’s beautiful The Amazing Bone rings very true in regard to perplexing things beyond our control we sometimes agonize over:  I didn’t make the world.

All we can do is live in this world the best we can, trying to be kind, maintaining the relationships we value as well as we can, until it is our time to move on, hopefully with some grace, as a final gift to those we love.  

I’m thinking about this today in part because of what my friend said the other night about feeling his painful feelings and partly because of two very different reactions from two old friends to my last angry piece about the now recently cremated Mark.

One read the final email exchange between me and my relentlessly exasperating old friend and didn’t understand what was so provocative about his final response that I felt compelled to drive a stake through his grieving heart right after his mother died.  His question caused me to re-read Mark’s last words carefully and write a detailed explanation.   This process entailed putting my finger on exactly why it had set me off, giving him the context of my long experience that had left me with the conditioned reflex to react that way.   He wrote back that he understood now, and found my explanation quite complete and sensible.

Another old friend had a much different reaction.  He was troubled by the outpouring of rage, which struck him more as the reaction of a betrayed lover than a merely disillusioned friend.    I wrote back that we were like siblings, bound in a constant sullenly competitive rivalry (Mark really wasn’t my romantic type, I’d have to say).  I offered to send him the long email I’d already written explaining exactly where the rage came from but he declined, having read enough already.   De gustibus non disputandum est.   I don’t judge anyone about their appetite for the hideous details, we are all different that way.

I have an appetite for the hideous details.   As, to some extent, does my friend who asked me why I’d been so savage replying to what appeared to him as an inept, clumsy, odd yet sincere attempt at reconciliation, not the final provocation I took it to be.   It was a good question, I saw, rereading the awkward reply that had set me off.   Sitting down to examine my anger and setting out exactly what ignited it was an excellent use of several hours.   In the end I felt neither arbitrary nor capricious (nor unfair) in responding the way I had.  

This can also be seen as merely my take on the endlessly justifying human need to endlessly justify our behavior and the justness of the feelings that lead us to do what we do.   Sure.   I made a good case for why I was angry, cited a few persuasive examples from the text.   It is what lawyers do in our litigious society and I did it to the satisfaction of my fellow lawyer.  

It was also an examination, for me, of the more vexing question of whether I had been fair to do what I’d done.   I questioned my actions, my motives.   The whole process of unraveling Mark’s maddeningly “un-unravelable” lifelong conundrum, as reflected in his final email, was some help to me.  In the end I was satisfied that I’d behaved as I’d want to behave, as I’d will anyone else in the same situation to behave, if I had the power to make it so.   The old Kantian Moral Imperative: act in a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did likewise.

One more annoying question and I’ll be on my way.   Why write things like this and hit “publish”, why put these sometimes troubling personal musings up on the internet for anyone to find?     Aren’t these private thoughts best shared among a small handful of closest friends?  Couldn’t they potentially torment people who might have loved Mark and not shared my anger at him?

I write them for an invisible reader as a way of putting things that feel important to me in a more objective, finalized form.   I need to provide enough general background for anyone to understand what I’m talking about.   In doing this I practice sorting through everything in mind and putting it forward in a way that is most easily comprehensible.   It’s not good writing if the average reader can’t follow it.  

Writing it, and constantly re-editing it, allows me to go back and clarify whatever is left unclear, on the page and in my mind.  In combing away cluttering words (in a way I wish I could attack my desk or kitchen table) I am able to make what I am saying, what I am feeling, clearer and clearer — to the virtual reader and to myself.

When it is as clear as I can make it, there is a feeling of completeness, the satisfaction of a job well-done.   Before I hit “publish” I read it one last time, to make sure everything is in the place where it makes sense for it to be (I often continue editing an already ‘finalized’ post any time I find something confusing in it).  If somebody in Kenya reads it, and it helps her see something in her life better, my work is worth it, I suppose.



[1[  Mind you, though you surely don’t need reminding, I speak merely as one opinionated, self-appointed pontiff (the better to pontificate, I say).   Feel free to skip this entirely, reject my right to write it or mock away.  This thinking/writing business works for me, better than the alternatives, anyway, but reading it is not for everybody — it goes without saying… just sayin’…

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