Recently I have been reading The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker. In this book, Mr. Walker argues that in order to be fully human, we have to allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions. We can’t, for example, decide that we are above feeling or expressing sadness or anger. Repressing these emotions only causes psychological dysfunction.
Reading this and Mr. Walker’s newer book on CPTSD, I realized that anxiety is an almost constant state of being with me, and has been for about as long as I can remember. I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that my anxiety is not actually warning me about danger in the world around me–it’s my repressed childhood emotions leaking out sideways, so to speak. Dismissing this anxiety as something unreal and not productive gives me an astonishing–and unfamiliar–sense of clarity. I guess that’s what normal feels like.
An interesting thing happened when I went to church in this state. I felt that God wanted me to be free of anxiety because it was crippling my ability to live as a healthy human being. I was surprised by the thought that being holy includes maintaining one’s mental health, since this is one part of pursuing what is good, rather than what is disordered, in all areas of life.
Interestingly, Mr. Walker’s words, “fully human,” have a deep significance in Catholicism–it’s been said that to become a saint means to become fully human.
But I didn’t realize this when I first returned to the Church at the age of 29. When I wanted to know how to be a good Catholic, I looked back to my childhood and its distorted idea of what holiness meant–basically I thought that the more I denied myself, the holier I would become. However, I came to realize that thwarting myself was not actually producing the fruits of the Spirit. It seemed to me that I’d been living a healthier life before I returned to the Church, but I couldn’t justify returning to that way of living without any intellectual basis for it. Finally, with Mr. Walker’s books, I realized that my concept of holiness was lacking in humanity.
Mr. Walker himself touches on religion and points out that my issues are not uncommon in the West–we seem to have lost some of our groundedness in the reality of what it means to be human, especially in terms of accepting our negative emotions.
In fact, it seems that sometimes we can’t even understand our own spiritual heritage because of this. How many people have, like me, been perplexed by all the “complaining” in the Psalms? Isn’t complaining a sin? Reading the book, I had an “Aha!” moment where it finally made sense–they’re not complaining (which is non-productive), they’re engaging in healthy emoting (processing feelings)! Mr. Walker even points out that Jesus’ words on the Cross–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”–are also an example of this healthy expression of negative feelings. Remember that the Church teaches us that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine!
One of the tools Mr. Walker suggests to rectify issues with healthy emotional expression is “reparenting.” I think this is essentially what happened to me the first time I went to Japan. Being a somewhat helpless foreigner encouraged grandmotherly types to dote on me anyway, and sitting in on the assemblies in the elementary schools where I worked was probably as educational for me as it was for the kids! I can’t speak for the cities, but at least where I was, in the countryside, I feel there was still very much a holistic sense of what it means to be a healthy human being that included our emotional nature. I often saw adults help children put words to what they were feeling, and gently suggest a healthy response. Even adult society seemed to have more consideration for our emotional nature as human beings, lending it a charming, old-fashioned, pre-industrial feel. I think absorbing these lessons helped me to heal from the truncation of my emotions.
It fascinates me how my experiences living in Japan, of all places, helped me to understand what Catholicism is really about. Becoming a better Catholic requires embracing reality–something that the humble Japanese are very good at teaching.