Back in the day, there were games at birthday parties. Games involving balloons and string and music and not enough chairs. The game I liked best was made up of a bunch of long, long, long tangled strings, one for each kid at the party. A present was tied to the end of each string. Each of us got to hold one the end of a string, and then we had to untangle the whole mess so we could claim the prizes at the other end of our strings.
Sometimes I feel like I'm still doing this same thing. Holding the ends of my tangled emotions, not quite sure what's at the other end.
As a kid at a birthday party, I knew I had a hold of a prize. As an adult, I get the sinking feeling it might be a live grenade.
When we're afraid of what's at the other end of the string, or when it just seems normal to feel like this (nobody's perfectly happy, right?), there's a temptation to do nothing.
But James Reeves says this: "If you haven't dealt with the past, it's not the past. It's the present and the future."
And besides that, as a therapist, I feel ethically bound to do what I'm telling other people to do.
Things like: don't be afraid of your emotions. Feel them. While you're feeling, listen to what you're thinking. Be willing to hold your automatic thoughts and beliefs up to the truth, and see if they match. Journal. Rest. Breathe. Get with the people who love you. Tell them the truth about how you're feeling. Listen to what they have to say. Be willing to make changes where things aren't working for you.
I think that holding the string is just part of being human. Our lives are a journey and a process and not just a destination. I think that life is going to be challenging, often painful. We are designed to have emotions about that. And those emotions will need to be acknowledged and honored and processed.
That doesn't make us bad or weak or unworthy. It just makes us human and normal and on our way.
We go through the untangling process with hope, because we've been promised that the truth will set us free. Whatever truth we find at the end of the string, we welcome it.
In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says this about painful emotions:
Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can't be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
So here's to holding the string. To following and untangling. To softness and illumination. And to the truth that sets us free.