Monday, June 22, 2009

Should Christians Feel?

I waken this morning with the taste of sadness in my mouth. It wasn’t a personal sadness but Barbara’s sadness by proxy. Barbara’s husband died suddenly last Wednesday. I thought of her waking up a lone each morning, after 50 years with the same man. How terrible. Maybe this is what they call empathy . . . the internalization of someone else’s feelings.

I also was thinking of the Iranians and couldn’t wait to turn on the news to see what was happening now that it was Monday night there. I switched on the TV and the news was over. I looked at the clock and it was 8:30. I had been awake at 6:00 as Denise left for work. I would have stayed up but I have the day off and allowed myself to drift off back to sleep.

I did find one news show . . . but I soon realized it was the 700 Club. I wouldn’t trust any news from their agenda. I’m sure before their broadcast is over they will somehow relate the Iranian uprising to Armageddon.

There must have been some forgotten dreams between 6 and 8 AM, something to do with Barbara . . . and the Iranians. I don’t remember the dreams but the feelings of their sadness was leaving a taste in mouth in the same way a flavor would have been left if I had eaten an onion and sardine sandwich in my sleep. After watching the movie, The Science of Sleep (a really weird but enjoyable movie), with Ramsey Saturday night I realize that Barbara and the Iranians may have been included in the same bizarre dream, driving around in cardboard cars (you have to see the movie).


One of the earliest memories of my childhood was standing in a department store, maybe J.C Penny’s or Sears. My mother was towering over me in her London Fog, beige, trench coat with her big hair and diamond-studded baroque glasses. I don’t know how old I was but it was during my preschool epoch of life.

My mother was speaking to another woman as only two mothers could. They were making a fuss about my brown eyes and who I got them from. Then I remember, as if it were yesterday, my mother looking down at me and telling the other lady (who is only a faint silhouette in my memory), “He’s a very sensitive child. He feels things very deeply.”

I think I remember this ancient event so clearly because prior to that moment I thought I was normal (now I realize that none of us are “normal.” Okay, maybe Jesus was the only normal man).

So, because this tendency for deep feelings had already made itself evident by age five, I suspect that there is a genetic influence although I’m sure my family culture eventually played a role as well.

But I still do feel things very deeply. I cried for a week when my friend Terry died and Denise kept trying to remind me, “You weren’t that close to Terry I don’t know why you are taking this so hard.” I’m sure if I was to spend a few hours on a psychiatrist’s leather couch that I would be eventually be diagnosed with some form of bipolar disorder (as practically everyone is these days). But it certainly is not the extreme type.

As I bicycled into town this morning, coming over the mountain with my glasses so fogged up I could make out the faint white line on the edge of the highway, my mind considered this whole concept of Christians, feelings and what is normal or not.

I woke up with another feeling this morning and that was one of dread. I’m leaving on a cross country trip tomorrow morning. The trip itself is the good part. While I’ve flown several times out of state this year, this is the first road trip in . . . at least six years. Okay, I took an Amtrak trip to LA three years ago. But to travel a long distance down with the earth is something I feel good about.

The part that I dread is that I’m going to a big family reunion with my wife’s side of the family. Of course I like her family and really haven’t seen them much in the past few years. I really ought to go. But the part that is hardest for me is (speaking culturally here), is that emotions are not allowed to be expressed on their property. To summarize, they are second generation stoic, Scandinavian, Lutherans. It is part of that culture to consider feelings as not becoming to good Christian people. Denise knows her parents love her but she says she has never heard them use the word, “love.”

I’m sure other emotionally charged words have never parted their lips. Words like hate, sad, depressed, frustrated, elated and I could go on. It’s not like they don’t have these emotions but they can not be expressed externally. I’m positive the word “sex” has never, ever been spoken on their farm by anybody but certainly a lot of it has happened there and not just within the Christian ideal.

In my search of church history I did seem to come to terms with my in-laws’’ cultural orientation better. It seemed like when the Vikings (who lived with a pure, raw, unadulterated expression of emotion) were finally tamed under a Christian king, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. It soon paralleled the Victorian English’s low esteem of feelings. I will define it (since this is the Christian Monist blog) in terms of Dualism Vs Monism. Simply the Victorians and Scandinavian stoics started considering emotions as a function of the flesh so to be spiritual you must rise above the animalistic expressions of feelings. It also made a good line of demarcation between them and the old Viking ways to show proof that they had repented. The Charismatics have gotten around this by showing pure unadulterated human emotion . . . but re-labeling it (as in a masquerade) as “spiritual” or a supernatural working of the Holy Spirit.

Okay, back to the situation at hand.

I have a couple of decades of memories of going to my in-law’s farm. It was usually a holiday so my wife’s three brothers, two sisters and their families would also be there in a state of chaos. Most of my memories were when our five kids were small. As soon as we got to the farm, Denise would disappear with her sisters, leaving me with the kids. The kids hated being at grandma’s and my job was like a swimming pool life guard. I watched them day and night trying to keep them for going off the deep end and imploding.

My mother-in-law is a stoic’s stoic. Once I got to know her brother (my wife’s uncle) I saw the pattern much more clearly. I’m not trying to be critical here as I do believe that we are all messed up in some ways, me more than most.

But my mother-in-law set her house up as a museum. The kids were not allowed to touch any of her figurines. They were supposed to sit on folding chairs, in nice clean clothes—hands folded on their laps—for days. They couldn’t go outside because it was either too cold (and it was) or too muddy. I remember once my son, Bryan, reached over and picked up a wooden puzzle (not realizing it was an antique) and took it apart. It was like if he had thrown a brick through their window in the way the family reacted . . . but carefully not showing any emotions.

When my sister-in-law, Sharon, combined her Lutheran stoicism with a new-found Christian fundamentalism, she became our out of control family’s worse nightmare.

It was during one of the Christmas trips that the event happened. Sharon had read far too many, “How to Raise the Perfect Christian Family” books. I was just on my way out of Evangelicalism . . . not having answers to everything anymore.

Denise came to bed late one night and I could tell she was upset but she could not tell me what the problem was. She didn’t want to tell me until we were off the farm because she was afraid I would show emotions . . . anger being the most evil one to express. Finally I was able to get her to spill the beans but with conditions set by her.

Apparently that day my son, Daniel (aka Caleb), age six, had mooned one of her kids (she had seven). To me it was kids being kids. To Sharon it was positive proof that Daniel was sexual pervert and possible demon possessed. In her views, if a child of six was a sexual pervert it only meant one thing . . . they too had been the victim of sexual perversion. Sharon was going to call the department of social service the next morning and report us. She was deeply (as a loving Christian relative with big smiles here) concerned about our family. Maybe a stranger had been abusing Daniel . . . or worse . . . his own father!

I think I can clearly say, it was the most angry I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve been in a couple of fist-fights but I had never been THIS ANGRY. My blood pressure must have climbed to a million over a hundred thousand. But I had to eat my emotions like a dirty shirt. Denise had me promise that if she told me, that I wouldn’t say anything or show any emotion at the breakfast table the next morning. I lay in the bed the entire night, in a cold, adrenalin tainted sweat, trying to stuff my emotions. It took every ounce of courage not to march into Sharon’s bedroom, yank down my p.j.s and MOON HER!


Usually the stain of marriage is the conflict in how the husband and wife were raised differently. The other dimension of conflict is probably the different in belief systems or just genetically-based differences of personality. I think this issue of how to express emotion has always been Denise’s and my most difficult part.

She has endured two bouts of my severe clinical depression. It is confusing to her, as to me. I try to practice good mental hygiene (and prayer) now as I never want to walk that path again. The best visual representation of depression, in my opinion, was in the Robin Williams’ movie, “What Dreams May Come.” Robin (can’t remember his screen name) traveled into hell to save his wife who had committed suicide.

Denise couldn’t save me and felt perplexed. I think she too has learned that just saying don’t show sadness is not the answer anymore and denying it is not good mental hygiene. There was a time during the midst of one of the depressive episodes that she made me go outside and lay the back seat of the truck because I had started to cry. She didn’t think it would be healthy for the kids to see their dad cry. I lay in the back of that Toyota, in Houghton, Michigan, with the snow pouring down . . . crying for hours—until my tear glands went dry. I felt like Robin William’s wife in the movie, when she was in fetal position in the bottom . . . actually top, of an upside down church, in the bowels of hell.

I am not one to try and put a positive spin on every thing (as if that is not apparent by now). I do realize that some extreme emotions are simply part of the human dilemma. I can remember in the depths of my last depression feeling that I was seeing the world in its most pure and honest form. I still wonder if that might be true. I t is sort of how King Solomon describes the world in Ecclesiastes. I knew that when friends at church were being so friendly it was because they saw us as an Amway target. They wanted to sell us stuff and really didn’t give a damn about us. But that too is part of the fall, the alienation of people from people.

I’m not a complete pessimist regarding the fall. There is still plenty of God’s glory in the background of every thing, even of course the non Christians (such as the Iranians). Like the astrophysicists, who talk about the background energy of the Big Bang being evident everywhere in the universe, the same is true about God’s glory. It is there . . . everywhere. I think that Solomon ended with the same conclusion. People do, sometimes, love one another with real love. There are rainbows . . . sometimes . . . and not just shit.

So, I’ve rambled without resolution but to say that I think emotions are part of being human. I will prepare myself to enter the world of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers on the Minnesota farm. In that story and movie, the only way the alien pod-reproductions could tell if you were a real human (and then kill you and reproduce your body) was if you showed emotions. The real human survivors learned to hide their emotions and then they could blend in perfectly with the pod people. I will try to blend in with the stoics.

I remember a patient of mine, who was also a writer and poet, wrote a poem about her depression. It was titled, The Ode to Prozac. The opening line was, “To feel or not to feel is the question.” On Prozac she did suffer depression . . . but she didn’t feel anything deeply.

7 comments:

pennyyak said...

It is difficult for me to sort out my life (in any dimension) during my times of depression. I can hardly write anything about it that makes any sense at all.

One does wonder about "normal". It has a wide range.

Anyway, maybe the food will be good (on your trip).

MJ said...

Oh, I'm sure the food would be great. I really rambled on that one.

Scott in Boston said...

During my 4.5 years in northern Germany, it was my perception that the locals do not show emotion as much as most Americans are accustomed to...even dogs take after their owners: a dog who does not know you most likely will approach you NOT wagging its tail, which can be very unsettling, since in most other places I've been, that is a sign of potential hostility in the animal. That said about animals, it could be even more unsettling among other humans (though usually without the threat of being bitten). However, one breath of fresh air was that (at least among German Christians--I was not among unbelievers enough to make an accurate assessment), it was not a "sin" to verbalize that you were not happy at the moment...even in casual instances. Upon being greeted cheerfully by a person "Guten Morgen, Uwe--wie geht's?" ["Good morning, Uwe, how are you?"] it was not rare for the other to respond unapologetically with "Es geht mir schlecht." ["Not well."] The parallel event here may yield a response of "I'm fine, how are you?" "Good." "Alright." "Okay." from a person who is not currently happy. But after a negative response in Germany, nobody raised their eyebrows, or was embarrassed, or tried to avoid the revelation (or the person). Often the initial greeter would then ask for more information, or at the minimum, wish for them that circumstances or their outlook would improve. I really appreciated that.

MJ said...

Scott, I would never have guessed that (about saying the negative in Germany if it were true). I also lumped in the Germans (in a way) with the norther Europeans. That's great. I honestly wish people at church would answer me honestly if they are not doing well that day.

I go to a Dutch church (most are only one or two generations removed). A friend was telling me that one reason that I could not get my home Bible study very far (in the honest sharing department) because people at this church (due to their heritage) are not very open to sharing deep things, especially emotionally charged things.

BTW, greetings from Missoula.

Jaimie said...

Oh, that makes sense. My whole family is Dutch, both sides. My mom doesn't express affection well. Heck, neither do I.

Steve Martin said...

I'm a Lutheran.

We are not allowed to feel anything lest we be accused of being a Baptist.

MJ said...

For Jaimie and Steve, I hope I didn't come across as using a broad bush to paint people of any background. I know that my dad was not allowed to express any emotions because real men of his era simply didn't. But I do know that in very private moments, rolled up in the bottom of his bed, my mom said he would weep. Not over anything, but big things, like his brother dying. But he was not allowed to cry at the funeral.

I know, speaking in generalities, that S. Europeans, Arabs and some other cultures express emotional much more freely. My experience with Asian cultures is more limited but I understand (again in general) that they do not express emotions freely, as it would be a sign of weakness. I feel there must be a balance. But if we live honestly, and we feel honestly (don't mean we should ever fake an emotion) that we should be able to express them.