Our culture rewards those who wear an ever-positive attitude. But sometimes, what is honest and right is to express our hurt and anger…to admit “this stinks!”
Optimism is often held up as a cardinal virtue. No matter the situation, we feel we should be plucky, searching for that silver lining, and courageous. With lips trembling, we bravely say, “I’m not going to have a pity party.” We stiffen our shoulders and brace for a hit, a plastic smile on our faces.
Yet the religious faith of Unitarian Universalism is based on authenticity. We encourage people to be their genuine selves in our churches, rather than mouthing things they don’t believe, or pretending to be something other than what they are.
Our Judeo-Christian heritage tells of Job asking God, “Why?” and features heartbreaking psalms of pain and disillusionment. Even Jesus is written as quoting Psalm 22, crying out to know why God had forsaken him.
In 1947, while the world was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies wrote:
Let us admit, then, and freely, that the notion of getting rid of gloom by reciting to ourselves a few well chosen pollyannaisms is both futile and absurd. Let us go on to admit that if it could succeed, which it cannot under present conditions, such a shallow success would be unwholesome and unworthy. Let us even go a little deeper and acknowledge that sadness is a part of human life: that a mature man or woman accepts it. It is not only that personal disappointment or bereavement can cause it: the contemplation of the world itself—the world man makes and breaks—should cause it. So should spiritual insight into the very nature of life: its hopes and dreams, its precariousness and fragility, its frustrations and failures, its love and longing, its perplexities and bafflements. In all that life is, even in its joys, there is at least the hint of sadness.
—from What to Do with Gloom, by Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
Working as a hospital chaplain, I met with patients dealing with illness, loss of independence, even potential death. Many had accepted this myth that they must be brave and optimistic at all times. I asked, “So how are you dealing with that?” and was told, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m staying positive!”
“Really?” I would ask.
Some, at this point, would admit that it was hard. They’d talk about their dark nights of the soul, their low days. Sometimes they’d cry, sometimes not. But they always felt relieved for being able to be honest about what they were feeling.
One patient, going through multiple medical issues, just was not going to budge. She trusted God, and she was going to stay positive.
“You know, you can both have faith, and take 5 minutes to complain,” I told her gently. “It’s okay to say, ‘This stinks.’”
“This stinks,” she said, nodding slowly. Two tears squeezed out of her eyes.
Then she threw me out of her room for making her cry.
Well, that was okay, and certainly her prerogative. But I can’t help contrasting her with another patient, a patient having to face some dire issues of her own.
One morning, I sat with her as she let it all out: weeping bitterly, asking why this was happening to her, pointing out that she tried to be a good person, railing at the forces causing this. As she was a Christian, I read to her Psalm 42. “….My tears have been my food day and night …Why are you in despair, O my soul?”
I visited her later that day. She was relaxed, and told me with pride about a minor thing she’d accomplished that day. She smiled and said she was so glad she’d been able to “be real” earlier. “Nothing like a good catharsis,” she said.
When we take the time to address the reality of our situation and our authentic feelings, we gain power. Tears, sorrow, anger, none of those are things to be feared. They are part of our human experience and they can serve us well, if we let them.
Spirit of life, the greater picture is often a mystery. I try to find my way through the questions, and my feelings often engulf me. Help me to release my pain, my despair, so that they do not drown me. May I face the future, honestly and completely acknowledging what is in my soul and heart. As I speak my emotions, I examine the needs underneath them. May this authenticity lend to me strength, discernment, and peace for the days ahead. Amen.
A Spiritual Practice
The Psalms in the Hebrew Bible articulate the range of human emotions. You can fairly track Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief as you read them. Substitute whatever metaphor for ultimate reality that you prefer – God, Fate, Life, the Universe, etc.
Some to read: Psalms 13, 22, 42, 43, 55, 74, 88, 130, 142. Try reading them out loud, and perhaps write your own psalm.
May you find expression for all of your emotions; may claiming them bring to you catharsis and calmness, so that you are better equipped to live your journey.
-Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford