America, I’m worried about your emotional health.

I’ve been out of professional, full-time ministry for 3 years now and I don’t think I’ve seen one person cry, or allow themselves to feel a sense of sadness, depression, or grief in my presence…..once.

I’ve not had one good argument, followed by heart to heart conflict resolution.

I find it awkward and (almost) out of place giving affirmation to someone’s conduct or character.

Most of all, I’m hard up to find anyone feeling comfortable being vulnerable with their emotions (except, of course, anger….which isn’t typically a token of vulnerability).

It used to be a common occurrence.  I’d get a text or call for beer or coffee.  Many of these meet-ups were just “check-ins”, by which, we were catching up in each other’s lives. However, sprinkled in the general petition to hang, was the “urgent request”.  Typically, this kind of request came from someone I might not usually hear from (or at least, someone I’d only occasionally meet with) who suddenly felt pressed by life enough to give me a ring.  These kind of interactions usually had a sense of urgency about them…and possible peril.  Most of them ended with us agreeing to meet, yet me tagging on a “….yeah, but how are you doing right now?  You going to be ok?” line at the end.

But that’s life as a pastor.  The reason I initially chose a pastoral career path (besides all the theological stuff, of course), over being a counselor, was the availability to be present “on the fly” and in everyday life.  I loved the thought of rubbing shoulders with those in the church at the grocery store, sidewalk, restaurant, etc etc.  This was a chance at seeing them in real life, without any stigma attached.  Something in the raw and steeped in our collective everyday lives was ALWAYS a perfect table setting for good, honest, relational exchange.

I left all that behind (long story for some other time) when I chose to enter the workforce full time.  The calls diminished, the interchange came to a halt, the requests were no longer.

But I had already seen it coming.  The few mentors I had helped me prepare for the transition, and I knew all too well, from other transitioning pastor’s testimonies, the desire to be needed would be all that’s left in the void when the phone stopped ringing.

In the end, I suppose that’s what I really wanted……

I wanted to know the next time someone picked up their phone to call or text me, it was out of honest desire, NOT because I held a “pastor” label over my head, like some wide-eyed oaf waiting for an anonymous connection at the airport.

I had been very forthright, and straight forward about who I was.  Even though the label was going away, I would always be the same.  Same listening ear, same yearning desire to know (and be known).

And the calls stopped coming in…..

Honestly, given I shifted into a 40 hour work week, it became hard to schedule any hangout time outside of work.  But my desire to know and be known always stayed, and most of all, so did my curiosity.

Over the years as pastor, I became more and more curious as to what it was like to be an “everyday joe”, working a full time job, and living out the rest of his time between work, family, and parceling out vacation time.  I wanted to know, and feel what many, if not most of us working class Americans feel.  I wanted to experience time and circumstances in the same way….bills, loss, gain (wash, rinse, repeat), mediocrity, occasional excitement (which I learn, is centered around holidays and weekends), and everything in between.  In short, I wanted to test the waters and find out if the everyday American, in the world as I knew it, was experiencing the same emotional interactions as I had been from my previous years as pastor.  And now, here I am, 3 years in, and I can say, without hesitation: NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT.  THERE IS NO ROOM FOR PROPER EMOTIONAL CONNECTION IN AMERICA (as I’ve experienced it).

I haven’t had 1 friend (even close friend, mind you) call and want to talk through tough times.  Not one tear, not one….fucking….tear has been shed by anyone I know (outside my own family) these past 3 years.  The only events which seem to garnish enough energy, by which people feel they can share, are tragedies.  Cars breaking down, migrant kids separated from their parents at the southern border, an overdue bill….all these are permissible.  However, how has it become absolutely impermissible for us to turn to each other and just say, “I’m sad…” and maybe let one lonely tear fall down our cheek?

More than that, how is it our narratives and storytelling aren’t peppered with moments of anger, sadness, grief, elation, and joy all mixed in together?   It seems we are fooling each other….telling each other anecdotes instead of actual stories.  We’ve become caricatures, instead of characters in our own stories.

Want an example?  Here, take two.

This spring, I attended a gathering with fellow adjunct professors, both male and female.  This is a well-adjusted, social justice driven, faith based group, on a higher education platform.

The event was hosted, and pitched as a farewell send-off for a professor who had taught there well over 20 years.  Some of his colleagues had known him for that entire time.

As professor after professor got up to talk and affirm him, EVERY one of them stopped on the verge of tears, and apologized for almost (yes, almost) crying….as if crying was a sin, or offensive, or something to be ashamed of.

Personally, I would have loved to see some serious crying.  The kind of crying that possibly involves long strands of snot (in theory) and uncontrollable heaving.  I mean, 20 YEARS.  The guy put his time in, he was damn good at it, and everyone of them had a deep personal love for him.   As a crowd participant, I was hoping for a show of emotion to really solidify, and quite honestly, give release to the building tension in the room.  Nevertheless, we were all denied the ability to emotionally connect, and only offered a logical attachment to a very emotional subject matter.  In the end, the professor walked away with a few gift cards, a nice placard, and a few side hugs…..

Contrast that with the stories in scripture where Paul is continually finding himself giving deep, emotional goodbyes to different communities of believers.

Even though the stakes were often higher in Paul’s departure (trial, imprisonment, execution), this kind of saying goodbye is all over the gospels and book of Acts.  Every time they dock, or journey somewhere by land, they are making new connections, or establishing old ones, and almost every departure is accompanied by “weeping”, “tears”, “pleas to stay”, “kneeling”, “praying”.  Once, his departure was accompanied by a prophetic performance piece by which Paul was presented (yes, I’m aware of the adorable alliteration happening) with his own belt tied around his wrists as a symbol of his future bondage and enslavement.  (Acts 21 vs. 10-11)

Surely, the community of believers are, or should be aware of their deeper emotions, and feel secure enough expressing them?

EXAMPLE #2

My uncle’s funeral.

Admittedly, I didn’t go with any expectations (not low expectations, just any).  I knew his children were organizing the event, and had previously held a smaller memorial for him months earlier, in Florida, where he lived 6 months out of the year.

This memorial was for close family and friends who he knew and grew up with.

I was groomed into it right from the beginning.  My cousin, who was organizing the event, let us know this was going to be a “fun time and happy remembrances”.  I got what was being said right away….”no crying. no sadness. no emotional processing at this event.”

What followed was essentially a non-curated hang out followed by us all jamming in line for a fish fry, stuffing our faces, and slowly dissipating until no one was left.  That’s it.  No words spoken. No sharing. No memories. No recap.  No connection. No feeling.  The entire experience was a shock, and it took me time to really register how unapologetically cold and disconnected the event was. In the face of all his old cronies, friends, and family, who took the time to be present and accounted for, none were given voice…and, I’d wager my bets, many were denied closure.

It’s not as though many of us were unwilling to share, it’s that we didn’t feel comfortable doing so unsolicited.  As I looked around the room, I saw conflicted faces.  Those of us who drew some deep emotion from the subject, but yet felt lost in a giant, turbulent sea of “fun times and happy remembrances”….of which, there seemed little to go around.

Look, I’m not a completely heartless soul.  I get it.  Processing someone’s death is HARD.  It can make a complete wreck and mess of the ego, and leave you looking like a fool.  However, I don’t remember any memorial, or funeral, or hospice visit,  by which, someone expressed emotion and walked away saying, “boy, I wish I had never been that open, honest, and emotionally vulnerable with the other people in the room.”  Usually, it’s the exact opposite.

If anything, I feel pain for my cousin.  They have a LONG road ahead of them, by which, they’ve somehow come to see their healing process as not a WE scenario, but a ME scenario.  They are trying to defeat the darkness of their own feelings on their own, without us.  We could have held that weight together, if only they would have allowed it.

Soooooooooooo, America, is this an accurate picture of your own emotional well-being?

I’m just curious if this goes beyond my own experiences…inquiring minds want to know.

Are you constantly skirting around conflicts, only to have it bite you in the ass later?

Are you continually denying yourself the ability to feel “deep” emotion (grief, depression, sadness, anxiety)  by creating unsafe spaces for it, only to feel it anyway, when you’re alone?

Are you hyper-focused on experiencing “good” emotions (happiness, elation, joy, etc), and fronting those in your persona (and on your social media)?

In fact, have you categorized emotions into 2 categories, those that are “good”, and “bad”, when human experience tells us emotions, by themselves, are not really meant for the value scale?  If you want to value the output of something, place the pyramid of importance and scrutiny on the ego, and all it’s consequences.

Most importantly, are we alone, or are we connected?

Sure, I’ve read the studies on male stoicism and lonesomeness leading to male violence and sexual assault in our nation.  Sure, I’ve been to a therapist (often) instead of confiding in a friend, when it only warranted the latter, and vice versa.  And sure, I believe all efforts to present us with data and emotional information on our nation’s mental health are valid (at least, in their attempt to understand who we are), but ultimately, it comes down to us recognizing our own needs and allowing ourselves the uncomfortably to experience them in the present.

And emotion is just that…experience.  Relational experience.  It’s the fraction of a second in real time, when we learn vulnerability and emotional honesty, which gives us the ability to bond in an ineffable way.  A way, by which, we may never be known again, if we don’t find ourselves creating the safe spaces for it.

Annotation: I loved to draw as a child. When I began adolescence, my drawings morphed into the dark and morbid. My parents became very concerned….what was causing such turmoil and distress in our family which could cause my drawings to go so dark? The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing dark, depressing, or overall somber was allowed in our house. This was not a written rule, of course, but an unspoken one. I never knew my father struggled with depression until later in life. My mother always shielded us from her deep overarching anxiety……until it escaped out of her in other, passive-aggressive ways. We were just tidy, button up, and overall “happy” people. I suppose my adolescent self subconsciously knew this wasn’t the whole story, and began to explore the dark and morbid artistically in an attempt to know more of myself. It’s not until recently in my life, have I realized all of us are endowed with the “Holy” and “Profane”. What makes us good will always be, and what makes us NOT good will always be. This doesn’t inhibit us from changing and becoming better, only grounds and humbles us in this experience called “being human”. What stifles us, and inhibits change, is our inability, or lack of desire, to look in the mirror and see both the light and dark side of ourselves.

 

 

 

 

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