On a cool morning in early September, I am sitting outside on a colorful mat, looking at a bunch of cute little faces and singing about busses, and cows that go “moo”… This is the first time in a year and a half that I have been able to come to my old preschools and do music with the kids. It’s not unlike finding water in the desert.
But suddenly, I notice something: As I relax, all these little eyes are looking at me, and I feel that love that I enjoyed so much before the pandemic began… and a part of me starts to close. There is a voice that says, “Wait a minute…. Are you sure? Aren’t you asking for a whole lot of pain right now?”
It might seem obscure at first, but I am very familiar with this voice… I do believe we have all heard it, though it can be hard to really notice that it’s there. Usually it just takes the steering wheel without us even knowing. I hear people talk about numbness, about “being closed off” or feeling isolated, about not being in touch with our emotions. But this is where it all comes from.
In my personal experience, of all the challenging emotions that we face as human beings - sorrow, anger, disgust, fear, and many others - the one that is by far the most difficult to endure, and the most damaging in the long run, is love that is not returned. This can happen in any multitude of ways: Loss of a loved one, for example. But a lot more often, this is actually an emotion that we have grown up with: Parents who have trouble returning love - either because they are so busy, or because they are themselves not fully in touch with it, or for any other reason; sibling rivalries; competitive or even abusive peers in school, or anywhere else for that matter. These things are all extremely common, as far as I can tell. And so I do believe that we have all grown up in a world where we are constantly wanting love, and not often in a relationship where it flows freely in both directions. And we get used to that. It becomes the way things are in our world.
The body’s common defense is to grow numb. We remember the pain of opening up and being disappointed, especially as young children, and we fortify ourselves against more suffering. I see it everywhere… and especially in myself.
The primal defense, by the way, is anger. Anger becomes our protector in a world without love. Ask anyone who has ever been in prison. But in scenarios where anger is not possible, or when it doesn’t get us anywhere for a long time, we find numbness. And soon after that is depression. A Zen monk I once knew would often say: “Sorrow is anger stew.”
So what happened to me this September?
Well… I guess it wasn’t September at all. It was a year of being alone at home. No company (except some friends on the weekends), no real live conversations, little or no music, no one to share meals with, no hugs. I got used to nothing. Whatever emotions I might have shared with others - and these are always naturally there, in all of us - they stayed inside. And it sucks. I saw how I was becoming numb over the course of a year.
And now here I am, having some trouble opening up.
So… What does one do?
Step 1: Get your anger out. You think there isn’t any anger? You’re going to be amazed. If you are looking for ways to do that, I made a little list of possibilities at the end of a post on anger from last February. Please send me more ideas if you have them!
Step 2: Go slow, but find someone you love. Not someone new, but much preferably someone old. Someone you already have in your life. And hug them. For a long time.
And if you find yourself facing the same fear and hesitation that I faced with my kids, go slow. Try to relax. And try to let the love in, even while there is some fear. Focus on the love, and the fear will eventually dissipate.
And if you really feel numb, like if this has been the way things are for a very long time, then you might have to do this for a while in order to really heal. Just keep doing it, and things will open.
If you don’t think you have such a person that you can hug this way, I would suggest that you do… but maybe you haven’t hugged them that way before?
No worries. Just go back to step 1.
Photo by Monica Turlui, Pexels