For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing down my hurts and disappointments, my losses. Since the pandemic began, all the plans I’d made, all the things I’d finally given myself permission to get excited about, to invest money and energy in, to do what I wanted have been canceled.
In the face of worldwide suffering, the restriction of our movement, death and illness, and the flagrant steps toward authoritarian capitalism, my personal losses are a drop in the bucket. Nothing for you to concern yourself about.
Yet it is my bucket, my drop, and the effort of making my losses small while trying to hold my heart open and brave and caring for others was causing me to be heavy and brittle.
In my life I have frequently asked the question that I am frequently asked as a therapist. There are many versions of this question, but they all boil down to, why should I feel my pain? Why would I want to suffer? Why wouldn’t I do what I could to feel good all the time?
The answers are myriad and there is no answer. I’ve thought about it morally, ethically, spiritually, but when I set aside everything the one thing that seems to be true is: that’s just how we work. What we don’t feel stays locked inside of us, taking up space like malware running in the background of a laptop, invisible except for its effects—slowing down your functioning, causing weird bugs, occasionally throwing up nasty pop-ups that say shit you don’t want to be seeing in your day to day life.
Feelings need to be felt, and being whelmed in our feelings is not the same as feeling them. Being witnessed with loving care is what helps our feelings move, and if we can borrow or pay for the loving witness of others, we can, and we can also learn to bear loving witness ourselves.
Grief and disappointment are not separate from care, joy, and enthusiasm. All of these feelings are emotions of engagement with this life. Letting things matter to us. Taking risks. Opening our hearts. Asking for what we really want and need, and then getting it. Or not getting it. Or getting it in a way we didn’t want or expect. Or getting it in a way that kind of fucks up the whole enjoyment of it.
Should I turn myself away from my sorrow, grief, and disappointment of not getting, then it remains in me. The space and energy I would have for fresh caring and new daring remains occupied. These feelings begin to become stagnant, shifting into cynicism, pessimism, despair, and irritability. Life no longer seems worth the effort of caring.
A friend recently reminded me of the Greek word acedia, which was once considered in Christian theology one of the “eight bad thoughts” that later coalesced into what we call the “seven deadly sins.” Acedia is a state of not-caring that leads us to want to forsake our work, our spiritual practices, our heartfelt engagement in the world. Writer Kathleen Norris describes it as “not being able to care, and being so not able to care that you don’t care that you don’t care.”
When we don’t grieve, we don’t let ourselves be disappointed, don’t witness the feelings and let them move, break down, compost, then we have no room for caring. Indeed we begin to feel resentment toward the world for being so harsh and indifferent to our caring. And we participate in our own defeatedness and acedia.
Last night I put my written slips of disappointment and grief into a little cauldron and burnt it. As the smoke curled and all those losses burnt away, I felt softness entering my heart again. I felt gratitude at a heart capable of caring, growing, and taking risks in a world that is so strange and unpredictable, where passionate connection can sour into cold distance and longing calls us forward into new journeys toward delight and despair.
Our feelings are not facts, not the objective and entire truth, and yet each wishes to be heard and acknowledged as we move on our journey.
Honor your disappointments and griefs. Share them with loving witnesses, if you can. And then lay them in the stone circle and, with love, set them ablaze. Their ash is the ground of hope.
Anthony Rella is a therapist in Seattle. His blog is a contemplative effort to support your growth and wellness. Each person has unique needs, challenges, and goals that cannot be adequately addressed or encompassed by a blog post. Call or email inquiries or to schedule an appointment. You can also visit Anothy's Facebook Page.