Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting Real

This summer, I am leading a young adult book group in our home. We are reading Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir, by Susan Isaacs. I’m all about snarky and authentic, and lately I’ve really been pondering whether or not authenticity in some ways necessitates snarkiness--not necessarily anger, but some degree of negative self-expression.

Isaacs talks about how much she was affected by her mother’s statement “If you’re angry, no one will like you.” My mother similarly admonished me once for showing anger in front of some non-family folks, and that memory has always stuck with me. (In her defense, I was being a brat. In my defense, I was 13.) The memory of that admonishment (clearly!) hasn’t affected me to the point that I withhold negative thoughts and opinions when speaking, but I do often feel self-conscious if I bare too much of my true self with people who are not close friends or family members. I’ll express a strong opinion or make a TMI comment (which I am wont to do) and will subsequently have that “I’ve said too much” guilt.

I read a pastor’s wife’s blog a few months ago that talked about a “get-to-know-you” game they played at a women’s retreat. The women were to get in pairs or small groups and respond to the prompt, “To really know me, you have to know ________.” That’s a bold game. Depending on who the others were, I’m not sure I could/would answer. My current answer would involve some very angry and cynical feelings. I shared those feelings with my sister-in-law over lunch the other day, and my hope is that such authenticity takes our relationship to the next level by knowing one another's frustrations as well as our joys.

However, I wonder. . . Is there something wrong with the fact that these negative feelings about a certain aspect of my life are so central to my life experience right now? Will people not like me if I express these feelings? The fact that I am not being specific about these feelings when I write about them here (on a blog that generally only gets a couple dozen hits a day) evidences my fear that the answer to those questions is “yes.”

On the other hand, I'm wondering if negative emotions (fear, hurt, anger, etc.) are inherent to authenticity. The book group seemed to agree that people who seem happy all the time can be off-putting, both because one feels such people aren’t being “real,” or because it inhibits one’s own ability to be “real” with them. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being a generally upbeat person, but negative emotions and experiences are part of life. No matter how good a person is at focusing on the positive and “seeing the glass half-full,” life is not perfect, and that imperfection is part of our common human experience. That doesn’t mean we should dwell on it, be bitter, or talk about it all the time, but in the context of important relationships, intentionally excluding or glossing over our struggles inhibits the depth of those personal connections.

Think of possible answers to the aforementioned get-to-know-you question. Would you feel you knew someone better if they told you “I love my kids more than anything,” or “I was abused as a child”? Hopefully, their love is deeper than their hurt, but a parent expressing love for a child is generally assumed. Maybe it’s precisely because the bad things are often kept secret that their revelation makes a relationship deeper and more authentic.

My negative feelings about a certain area of my life don’t define me, overall. If the subject comes up, chances are I'll get upset or at least sad, but I don't walk around with a dark cloud over my head. I am very happy with life right now, in fact. (“Just another day in paradise” is my new favorite mantra!) But unless you know the yin to my yang, you don’t really know me.

What do people need to know to really know you?
Is it positive or negative?
How willing are you to share negative emotions with people?
Feel free to leave a comment anonymously if you just need to share.


Matt Kelley said...

I wonder if our discomfort at negative emotions is somehow a sign that we don't really believe that God can make the best out of absolutely anything. If we really believed that, then we wouldn't fear our dark sides, because we'd truly be living like the light is stronger.

Anonymous said...

I think I can be closer to people that I think have it better than me, or I think are prettier than me, or have more friends than me, if I know that they also have negative things happening in their lives. I guess somehow it seems to balance things out, and though this is a wrong way of looking at things, it makes me feel better about myself seeing them struggle at things. It makes things feel more even between us, and it usually results in a stronger friendship. Does any of this make any sense?

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

on this subject, a line I just noticed in a article on raising happy children:
"Children need to know that it's okay to be unhappy sometimes — it's simply part of life. And if we try to squelch any unhappiness, we may be sending the message that it's wrong to feel sad. We need to let them experience their feelings, including sadness."

Anonymous said...

I agree, Jessica. As someone whose parents didn't allow them to express sadness, it's important for children to know that their feelings are valid.


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