On one of my early independent jaunts as a kid into the Atlantic Ocean, I got my first taste of salt water. Gagging and coughing, I wasn’t sure why I felt like I might throw up. I had lost my footing and was sucked into the current of the sea. I’m sure I hadn’t drifted too far out, but it didn’t take much for the force of the tide to pull my string-bean frame out further than I’d planned. I was old enough not to be trailed by an overly concerned parent but young enough not to be the best judge of how far was too far. So I learned the hard way, as we often do, just what they meant by undertow.
Undertow. That force that moves in opposition, always there, imperceptibly so. Threatening. Challenging anyone who ventures in to call its bluff.
A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by an interview on CBS This Morning with a psychiatrist father and his comedian daughter. They were pitching their new book to the media, “F*ck Feelings.” What drew me in was the suggestion that we must accept our complicated feelings and difficult life circumstances, despite how we might feel about them. There are some things that, no matter how much we might wish were different, just will not ever, not never, change or go away. Sometimes feelings are what they are. We can’t feel our way out of them but must learn to live with them, around them, in spite of them. And not just live but, rather, live well and love ourselves for trying.
I’ve been divorced over two years now, and still, I wonder when I won’t feel sad. After all, that sadness puts me in conflict with all the goodness that has flowed into my life since then. Grief still lingers. Just when I am not sad about one thing, I become sad over another. Sadness remains because each day carries a paradox for me– the challenge of living well but outside the boundaries of my values. The undertow of that loss sometimes threatens to pull me out to sea. I live with, and I live without every day. I live with the hope that emerges when something new comes to life. But I live without the dreams I’d set out for in the first chapter. And when I’m caught in the undertow, I doubt whether I can get where I want to get at all.
I woke up one morning, wondering just where God was in all this sadness, not just my own but, also, yours. Ours. We all live with. And we live without. Yet, therein is the very conflict that leaves room for the divine to make all things beautiful. The very notion that this will take time and things will be made beautiful points ever-so-subtly to the fact that they didn’t start out that way. We are with, and we are without every day.
Feelings are just that–feelings. They come, and they go. They’re wobbly and unreliable. They’re like scattered Legos on bare feet in the dark. They can trip you up. Or, just when you think you’re going to take a quick dip, they pull you under. Though we might not be able to master of our feelings, we can master how we handle them. We can choose to live well and make it our quest to find as many ways as possible to do so. And when sadness rears its head or disappointment nestles in beside us, we can celebrate the endeavor we’re on, the blood, sweat, and tears we’ve shed to get beyond it.
Feelings tell us something about ourselves–what we value, what we’ve lost, and what we ultimately long for. They need not drag us down. We may find ourselves being pulled under. Yet, if we can yield for a moment to the pull, the emotional swell can come and go without sucking us completely under. And in the miracle that is learning to swim, we may soon find that our deepest aches give way to joy.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5 NRSV