I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions recently, obviously. This has been a lot larger than I make it out to be in my writings sometimes. I think about where the emotions come from. What are the root issues that have informed these emotions? Why does my brain react in the way that it does? How do I teach my son to be healthy emotionally? How do I deal with emotions in a way that is constructive and healthy myself? How have my emotions impacted my faith? I had been thinking on these topics when I was working on painting my son’s playroom this week.
I like to work out and do work listening to stories. I started listening to audiobooks, and have since started listening to all sorts of Podcasts, I even started my own. I was listing to NPR’s Invisibilia. They are doing a very interesting “concept album” this season and started with emotions. In it they interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett, who had a somewhat new and very interesting take on emotions. She also builds upon some of the concepts brought up by David Goleman in his book “Emotional Intelligence” This is a quote from that interview:
Your brain is organized in such a way as to [make] anticipatory guesses about what is going to happen next. And this is happening entirely outside of your awareness. You have past experiences, and those experiences become wired into your brain, and then your brain uses those past experiences to make guesses about the immediate future.
So, emotions aren’t happening to you. Your brain makes them as you need them. You are the architect of your own experience. It’s just that most of this is happening outside of your awareness.
This was paired with a story about a car accident in which a family lost a little girl and the trucker who was on the other side. They explored both sides of the story and the emotions of those involved. It was an accident that nobody was really to blame for. The trucker developed PTSD from the accident due to the “constructs” (The word Dr. Barrett used for emotional responses) that were instilled in him from an early age. One of these constructs resonated with me. This was a construct that basically informed him that “a man is always in control.” This is what caused him to believe that he was a killer and that he murdered the little girl by not being able to move the truck out of the way in time. He couldn’t have. This is something that in our society we teach little boys, and reinforce in them from an early age.
I remember growing up that I watched the men in our church and my life. I noticed and was taught, that men don’t show emotion. I was taught that men are supposed to be strong, silent, and take care of their family. This is a societal and gender specific construct that is reinforced from many different angles. The reason the trucker’s story resonated with me, is because I think that is a very similar, if not same, construct that informed my own PTSD and Anxiety. Now, I realize that many people would not view our experiences as similar. I can’t even imagine being in his shoes at the time. But my experiences with the church were very traumatic to me and my own life. This is particular to my situation especially, because I am a man. I am supposed to be in control. I am supposed to provide for my family. I am supposed to be the “bread winner”.
Have you ever noticed how damaging these gender specific, and western societal constructs can be in the context of the church? Think about it. We tell men they are supposed to be in control, but we also tell them to rely on God as God is in control of all things. We tell women to be nurturing and caring leaders, yet we also tell them that God said through the writings of St. Paul that women shouldn’t lead men. I could go on and on, but there is one, in particular, I want to focus on. Men are supposed to be strong, silent, and in control of their feelings. We tell boys that when they cry or when they feel sad that they are to “suck it up” or “be a man”. Yet we also have a few tenants of our religion that require us to be in touch with our emotion.
Have you ever noticed that in our stories about the God-man Jesus, there are very few emotions being expressed? There are two, in particular, that pop into my mind as I sit here and write. One of my favorite verses, in fact, pops into my mind, “Jesus wept.” There is also another story about anger and rage coming from Jesus. The gospel writers told about turning over tables and killing a fig tree because there were no figs. That’s right, God hates figs. Have you ever noticed that we just assume other people’s emotions? There are so many emotional constructs that we have developed in our lives that to sort through them all is a huge task. We assume the other has had the same experience we have and therefore when they display signs of a construct that was developed in our own experience we assume that is what they are “feeling”. I have a problem with assuming. I find it funny that I’m in a job where I have to rid myself of all assumptions in a moment by moment basis.
The (small c) church reinforces that assumptive construct for men. They label those men who are in touch with their feelings as girly, feminine, or an assumptive sexuality preference label. Which as soon as they do they immediately condemn them for that. I was a very emotional kid. I was quite in touch with my emotions and with trying to figure them out. This led to all kinds of assumptions from the adults of my church. Especially about me and my best friend as a teen. We both were more into music, into figuring out feelings, figuring out religion, and trying to figure out exactly who Jesus was. We spent all of our time together and called each other a lot, back in the day where you had landlines. In fact, I can remember my sister calling him my boyfriend quite often. He was my best friend and still is my oldest and closest friend to this day. But there were assumptions made about us without even talking to us. This, like most gossipy topics, spread through the church more than once. It was a bit detrimental to a teenaged boy who was trying to figure things out.
I think that the more we assume things about other people the more we shape the reality for them. How many times has the church shaped reality for those who have been abused or the abusers? How many times has the church shunned a sinner, a divorcee, a pregnant teen, a teen mom, and so on? We make assumptions about them and in turn create constructs that tell them things like, they are unloved, they will never be forgiven, god doesn’t care, and that they are horrible. This creeps in little by little and becomes the tyranical “truth” that it can take years to rewire that reality. The wierd thing about western culture is that we do not do well with conflicting ideas, yet we constantly create them for ourselves. We tell people with our words that we love them, yet our actions say something completely different.
Maybe the church has spent way too much time, energy, and money trying to prevent “sin” instead of making the world a better place. Maybe if we stopped trying to tell people what is good and moral in our own eyes, and started living the love we preach we’d see our reality is not the only one. The Reverend William Barber in an interview on The New Yorker Radio hour said it this way (Honestly, if you have 23 minutes to spare, go listen to it! It’s incredible.) “If your attention is not on dealing with the issues that hurt the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the left out, the least of these, the stranger, and all of those that are made to feel unacceptable; you don’t have white right-wing evangelicalism. You have heresy!… You have theological malpractice.” We, as a church, built these constructs that said, “No those people cannot come in.” But the huge contradiction was that they were the exact people we were sent to help. We make these constructs telling little boys to be tough and strong and take care of things, yet that’s not how life works. That’s not how relationships work. We tell little girls to be princesses, humble, quiet, and unassuming, but that’s not how life works. We want people to come into the doors of the church, yet we shut and lock the doors before they can get in.
Maybe religion is for those who make assumptions, and are assumed about. Maybe true religion, a real honest faith, happens outside the shrines we’ve built to our own false realities. Maybe what Jesus would look like today is not someone sitting in a pew, or preaching from a pulpit. Maybe Jesus would be out on the street, meeting anyone who happens to talk to him. Handing out food to the hungy. Visiting those in prison. Making sure people see and experience justice. Maybe Jesus has left the building. I don’t know, but these are the thoughts that I’ve had.
My life has been spent trying to fix what other people have thought about me. My life has been shaped by tyranical truth that was built on assumptions. It’s time to rewire my brain and realize that my truth, my reality is what I make of it. I want to make it a good one. I want to make it one where I am generous, kind, in touch with my feelings, fall down sometimes, can graciously accept grace, freely give grace to others, lift others up, and find that just because someone calls me “girly” doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.