One of our classes is supposed to be on teaching us professionalism. One line out of one slide sticks with me.
“Where do our emotions come from?
They come from our expectations, the stories we tell ourselves.”
My first thought is, “How embarrassing how true that is.” Somehow we all like to think that we are acting based on reality, not on our perception of reality. We like to think we can engage with reality, and don’t like to admit how incapable we are of even being aware of reality–everything being filtered by our own senses and experiences before we can even perceive it.
My second thought is how humbling this is, realizing that we are all engaging in reality as best we can as we perceive it. It’s hard for there to be right and wrong, not because right and wrong don’t exist, but because when we’re engaging in what we perceive as fundamentally different scenarios, the context of our actions and emotions is incredibly different. As an example to illustrate the point, it’s very appropriate to embrace a beautiful woman–who is your wife. It might be appropriate to embrace a beautiful woman–who is your brother’s wife, who is scared for the safety of her children. Most would agree it is definitely not appropriate to embrace a beautiful woman–who is a complete stranger to you on the street, is already married, and does not want anything to do with your advances (but, gosh, is she beautiful!).
Clearly, the action is the same in all the cases. Hugging a beautiful woman. But the context is so radically different. If we recognize that none of us has the ability to actually sense the entirety of reality, of all all that is, it means we are all seeing, perceiving, a different context. With the context that I have, I may be right and you may be wrong. With the context that I have, I may be wrong, and you maybe right. Since neither of us really has the full context. . .does that mean we’re both wrong? Both right? Both just utterly confused and stumbling around blindfolded?
Picking over it all has made me (somewhat) more hesitant and patient with others. Yes, I know where I stand. But suddenly, I realize that I don’t really know where you stand. It’s harder to vociferously present and defend Me, when I stumble over the fact I really have no idea what is I’m trying to interact with. Who are You?
Thirdly, as my thoughts start to propagate outward like a ripple, I unearth the cliche of “You get to decide how happy you will be!” I’ve always looked down on this saying. People don’t get to choose how badly it will hurt them when a loved one dies. When depression slides in like a smothering fog, not much choice is involved.
But where do our emotions come from?
“The stories we tell ourselves. . .”
Maybe that cliche is abused horribly. Maybe it has some truth to it.
I turn this over in my head again and again. I’ve always thought that story-telling was something to dismiss. That either it was a childish past-time, meant for children, or it was a deceptive (even if only self-deceptive) act, good only for hiding behind and of no wholesome use. Now, I wonder.
Reality is large, larger than we can take in. . .perhaps even larger than we can contain in our consciousness at once, even if those aspects can be observed individually.
This school system is broken; these people are superficial; I can’t do all of these assigned readings; this person doesn’t understand me. . .
These things might be true.
This teacher is excited to see me learn; these people are afraid to show their true selves, perhaps even to themselves; I can disregard these readings in their entirety and do something creative; I am so grateful this other person is patient with me. . .
These things may be equally true.
But do I have the capacity to hold on to them both at once? We sometimes try to become better graspers, to make like an abstract artist and see more then one view at once. But what if it’s not about grasping? What if it’s really about letting go? About not telling one story, so you can hear the other?
See, they tell us to be more positive. They tell us to stop expecting bad things, and to be more optimistic. But what if they have got it backwards?
What if, instead of expecting all things to be good, and being roundly disappointed every day with the fallen and broken nature of this world and the pain it brings us. . .we let go of the expectation of things going the way we’d like, and clung to the wonder of the grace of the exceptions?
The story that we tell ourselves is often full of “shoulds.” I should do that, this should be fair, this should not be. . .It’s heavy with shame, blame and regret. It breeds anger and it breeds guilt. But I wonder about a story that recognizes the brokenness and the undeserving privilege, both. What about the stories full of, “I have the privilege. . .”?
“I expect this day to be hard, but I have the privilege to be here. . .”
“I am frustrated with these broken systems, but I have the privilege to learn. . .”
“I cannot do all that is asked of me, but I have the privilege to be happy. . .”
“I do not know what will come next, but I have the privilege to be at peace in this moment. . .”
It does not try to minimize and dismiss the darkness by squawking about a silver lining and better days. It does not tell you to try harder, try better, to rage against the night. It says, “Oh, this candle in the darkness! How dark is the darkness, and how much brighter the darkness makes the candle!”
It says, “Reality is large; all the things that have gone wrong in this world are too much for me to hold on to and contain. They are still there, all around me; but what I will cradle the most instead are the parts of reality that are just too good to miss.”
I have not been telling myself that. I have been telling myself stories about shoulds, and getting bogged down in the expectations of others and myself. But when I see and hear of happy people who have survived through horrible things, I don’t hear the shoulds. I hear the privileges. “When mom couldn’t find food (surely every child SHOULD have food?), she would distract us from our hunger by singing and dancing with us.” The should drags us down, even the “should” of insisting there is something good about the darkness. The wonderful privilege says, “we can’t eat–but we can sing and dance!” The wonderful privilege says, “I admit, I had almost wondered if there was any point in going on–but then I had the most wonderful pear!”
One leads to despair and one leads to delight. Perhaps they are both part of the same reality. . .but where do the emotions come from?
One thing I know: to-do lists don’t tell a good story. They are full of shoulds and disappointments, and they are never satiated.
What I don’t know is how to tell that other story. . .but I’m going to find out how.