I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach lately. As soon as we arrive, my 9-year-old niece Grace, runs to the water, her dad not far behind. And there she stays — for hours — letting the waves carry her or crash into her; she doesn’t care which. All she wants is to be as “in them” as much as she possibly can.
Me? Not so much. I’m more of a shore girl. I position my reclining chair just so — making sure I directly face the sun. I rummage through the huge bag I’ve brought with me for a towel, sunglasses, my Diet Coke, and maybe (sometimes) the sunscreen. It’s hot and I’m restless. I get out my phone, but the glare of the sun is too bright to read the screen. I dig for the book I brought, but then decide that the white pages are going to hurt my eyes. So I watch Grace — out there in the water — while I try and sit still in the sand.
I wonder about this: the chosen “safety” of the shore, the restlessness that sometimes overwhelms, the seeming-inability to just be, to let the waves carry me or crash into me, to let myself feel all of it. (I’m not talking about the water or the beach anymore; rather, about emotions.)
This business of “being” with our emotions — whether they carry us, crash into us, or both — is hard.
Life is hard! And right now? When everything feels out of control, when bad stuff happens to good people, when wars persist, when Supreme Court rulings are overturned, when school shootings occur yet again, when the NRA meets anyway, when the most paid-attention to news is about a celebrity…it is WAY easier to think about all of these things than to feel them.
Our emotions are overwhelming. Too much, even. We don’t know what to do with all that we feel, so not feeling seems a better and maybe even safer/saner alternative. It’s like picking the beach chair over the waves. Slightly more stable. A bit easier to control. A known entity.
Still, those waves, the power of the ocean, being small in something so very big, letting go…It pulls at me sometimes. Like the tide.
When I first began working with a therapist, it wasn’t long before he asked, “When do you grieve, Ronna? How do you rage?” (Notice: not “if,” but when and how!)
“But so much of what you’re telling me deserves those emotions, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know how to do that. And I’m afraid that if I start, I’ll never stop. The people in my world cannot handle me falling apart. I would be way too much.”
Over time (and with extreme patience), he began to suggest ways to let go of those set-in-stone beliefs, let go of my tight grip on NOT letting myself feel. It felt incredibly dangerous, tenuous, like a tidal wave about to crest, certain havoc. But I trusted him and tried. It was hard. It was scary. And shockingly, the world did not come screeching to a halt, nor did anyone drown (both of which I was certain would occur).
These days, things are incredibly dangerous, tenuous, like a tidal wave about to crest — barreling down on us. How are we to take it all in? What are we to do? What can we do, really? It all feels so hopeless. And we feel so helpless.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown describes this as anguish. (It’s a long quote, but well worth reading.)
“Anguish is an almost unbearable and traumatic swirl of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness…The element of powerlessness is what makes anguish traumatic. We are unable to change, reverse, or negotiate what has happened. And even in those situations where we can temporarily reroute anguish with to-do lists and tasks, it finds its way back to us.
“…we can convince ourselves that we’re okay and keep ourselves upright by hanging our crumpling anguish on rigidity and perfectionism and silence, like a wet towel hanging on a rod. We can become closed off, never open to vulnerability and its gifts, and barely existing because anything at any moment could threaten that fragile, rigid scaffolding that’s holding up our crumpling selves and keeping us standing.”
As I read her words for the umpteenth time, I think that maybe, sometimes, it’s OK to let the scaffolding fall, to step into the waves and let them carry us and crash into us. It’s OK, even critical and healing and transformative, especially during these times, to let ourselves grieve and rage, to feel everything.
May it be so.