If you’re over the age of forty you might recall the 1994 movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. While it’s not a particularly memorable movie, the title seems to have an unexpected stickiness to it.
Four Divorces and a Funeral – that’s pretty much what our life has been in the past month; a string of heartbreaking stories of grief and loss. We’ve been privileged to walk with dear friends and family members as they traveled these difficult journeys and, as usual, we’ve learnt some lessons for how we relate in our marriage from their honest struggle.
Learning the Lessons
One is that intense emotions make it hard, really hard, to make good decisions. Whether we’re caring for a dying parent with an unknown life expectancy or trying to make sense of why our spouse of 30 years has suddenly taken off on a midlife crisis, keeping a level head is unmercifully challenging.
It has made us deeply grateful for our Catholic faith, a faith that not only offers the comfort of knowing that Christ and his mother walk with us, but that also lays down clear moral guidelines that guide how we act when highly emotional. Left to our own devices at these times of emotional chaos, we would surely make some very bad calls if it weren’t for the boundaries our faith provides.
Such intensely painful emotions are extremely hard to tolerate and our desire to resolve them can lead us to behave in ways we later regret. Whether it’s acting abusively towards the person causing our grief or innocent others caught up in our whirlwind, such behaviour might be understandable, but it is never acceptable.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind about emotions.
- Firstly, our emotions are neither good nor bad in themselves and so are morally neutral. That’s true of emotions that feel good or feel lousy. Pleasant or unpleasant, there are no positive or negative emotions, they are simply a spontaneous response to a stimulus such as a person or situation.
- Secondly, the word ‘Emotion’ shares its Latin roots with words such as ‘motion’ and ‘motivation’. Emotions are intended to impel us to action; to motivate us to act. They are symptoms or indicators of our internal psychological state and are incredibly important for survival and well-being.It is therefore important to take note of our emotions, accept them and pay attention to what they are indicating about our interior life.
For example, if we feel we are plagued by guilt, we need to pay attention to the disorder in our spiritual life that has triggered those feelings of guilt so that we can move towards the fullness of life to which we are called. Blaming someone else, or something, for our guilt is an avoidance strategy that will ultimately backfire; the guilt will re-emerge at a later time.
- Thirdly, emotions are not all of who we are. They need to be balanced by our intellect and tempered with careful judgement.Acting only from our emotions is foolhardy and dangerous; it leads to chaos. Similarly, ignoring our emotions in some vain attempt to imitate Dr Spock and his super-rational Vulcan friends is also less than human.
We need both our emotions and our intellect, and both need to be ruled by our will – that capacity to live fully by accepting our emotions and directing our intellect within a freely-chosen moral framework.
- Fourthly, our EQ (emotional intelligence) can be consciously cultivated. While some people seem to be more naturally gifted than others, simple practices can help us hone our emotional intelligence skill set.The best place to start is with self-awareness (intra-personal EQ) and from there, we’ll naturally be more other-aware and empathetic (interpersonal EQ).
This necessarily requires us to prioritise reflective space in our busy lives. And that is the first cue that we are avoiding our emotions – busyness. If we are too busy to pay attention to our interior life, we are engaged in self-destructive escapism.
Those unsettling emotions don’t simply go away when we distract ourselves with busyness, they go underground and will re-emerge at a later time like a raging bull – ergo the midlife crisis, unprovoked outbursts, bouts of unexplained sadness and death-bed remorse.
Once we enter into self-reflection, often deeper emotions will emerge. For example, it is very common for the reaction of anger to be masking the deeper emotions of sadness, regret, fear or hurt.
When we recognise and name these emotions, something important starts to happen. Like Adam asserting his authority over the animals when he named them in the creation story (see Genesis 2), naming our emotions gives us authority over them and begins the process of bringing them under the governance of our will.
The next step is to externalise our emotions. Armed with our will, we have choices at this point – we can choose to do this in a healthy way that gives life to ourselves and others, or an abusive way.
EQ and Prayer
Finally, if we’re going to get real with our emotions and enter into the fullness of our interior life, we should be sure to draw on prayer to assist us. Not only will Christ help us decipher and understand our emotional state, he is the ultimate healer for emotions associated with wounding.
Our emotions are the ideal content to bring to prayer. Too often our prayers are superficial as we scratch around for something to talk about and leave all the really important stuff out; the stuff we worry about or that scares us, the stuff that tempts us or delights us, the stuff that shames us or makes us angry.
This ‘stuff’ is exactly what God wants to have a conversation about with us. It’s the real stuff of our lives
God wants to be in intimate relationship with us, not just a casual acquaintance. Not only does Jesus help us know ourselves better, sharing our emotions transforms our prayer life.
There is a reason why holy people seem to be calm and able to respond with great courage and integrity when under emotional stress. Think of some of the martyrs who, despite the threat of torture and death, were able to calmly resist the pressure to compromise their faith.
A deep relationship with God centres our life. Such a relationship relies on intimate conversation just like our other relationships. Prayer helps us process our intense emotions in a healthy way as we deepen our intimacy with the One who gave his life for us.
Four divorces and a funeral… don’t wait for personal tragedy or trial to begin talking to God about your emotional life. This kind of intimate prayer is one very practical and effective way for building in self-reflection into a busy life and will be your guiding star when you need it most.