Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Gifts of Grief and Fear

Dear Reader,

When I was young, I wanted to be like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, free from emotion and able to think rationally at all times. At least, that is how I interpreted the character when I was young.

Later, I came to understand that he was not free of emotion, as the alien Vulcan race on that show is described, because only his father was Vulcan; his mother was human. He was trying to be a pure Vulcan, but he was not. He had feelings, which he did not want, so he repressed them, and several episodes and movies hinged on the difference.

I followed suit in part, and struggled to supppress feelings I believed were negative, such as fear, anger, and grief. I succeeded to a surprising degree, but in doing so I incurred the liability of all those who separate their intellect from their feelings. Seeking to become free of certain emotions, I instead made them invisible to me, lost that sixth sense most people have that allows them to use their feelings like antennae to help them think, lost the ability to keep my feelings in true balance by integrating them into my personality (since I was unaware of them) and instead became controlled by them. They had free rein down in the dark places of my unconscious. For decades, it was as though I had lost a sense other people have, a kind of blindness, and also could not at times predict or explain my own behavior.

When I began counseling in April of 1987, my counselor noticed these blind spots in my emotions and struggled for years to get me to even realize they were there. For almost nineteen years despite discussing sometimes harrowing things I never cried in therapy. About halfway through that time I finally came to agree with my counselor about the consequences of my emotional blindness, and particularly came to agree that my cycles of depression were directly related to it, that escaping from those debillitating crashes was in part going to require regaining the use of those feelings. After much work we finally began to push through and find the anger, but we never did get to the grief and fear in any depth . . .

. . . until my kitty Shakti fell seriously ill in January, rapidly weakened, and died February 21st.

Her illness and death changed everything for me. It was very much like the experience of someone blind since childhood regaining sight. I cried more during that month and even since than in the last thirty years combined. I can feel sorrow and grief in response to movies and songs, in parting from friends and relatives, in thinking back on other friends and relatives who have died--in short, I am beginning to feel appropriate shades of grief now at all those times when an emotionally healthy person would.

And during my recent vacation on the Navajo reservation, I discovered fears I had never known while hiking on steep cliffs, not crippling fears, but good, healthy responses to risky situations. I am starting to feel the nuances of concern and fear that characterize emotional health.

This restoration of my so long atrophied inner senses is precious to me, a parting gift of emotional alchemy from Shakti, as her gradual loss dilated my heart. Although many people are so dead to the living world around them that they cannot imagine why a person should feel any strong attachment to a cat, Shakti is probably as close as I will ever come to having a child. We were part of a family together for seventeen years and eight months.

When I was young, I imagined that the feelings I categorized as negative were bad, weaknesses even, and I struggled to overcome them. It took me decades to undo the damage I inflicted on myself as a result. If you can help it, do not make the same mistake I did. We have our suite of emotions for a reason. We need them. We cannot think rationally without them, an idea that only sounds confusing because we have such screwball ideas about the nature of intelligence. Also, as easy as it may be for us to inhabit our feeling life so exclusively that we remain infantile and self-involved, nevertheless we cannot even perceive the world accurately with intellect alone. Reason, sanity, happiness, and health depend on integrating analysis of information with subtle and fluid assessment of our shifting emotions. We cut ourselves off from those emotions at our peril.

My fear and grief were restored to me by my cat's illness and death. If you too have lost part of your inner sight, may you also be lucky enough to receive such a gift to help you find your way back to health and wholeness.

Yours truly,

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