Monday, January 24, 2011

Heart on a sleeve

I can clearly remember the first time I heard someone I knew described as a man “who wears his heart on his sleeve.” As a young journalist and lover of language, I’d never heard the idiom before—and it stuck. It seemed a perfect choice of words at what was obviously an impressionable moment.

Openly displaying how you feel about things was a novel concept for me at the time. I was in my late-20s and only beginning to understand that emotions existed on a continuum well beyond my personal experience. That a middle-aged man I knew—and respected—did not restrain his happiness or sadness was a revelation. Norm was not the best magazine publisher I ever met, but he was a man filled with kind, often funny, and encouraging words for those around him, including me. It’s what people loved about him. He also had a temper that flared at unpredictable intervals. Mostly I remember Norm for the raucous stories he told that would often end with him bent over in laughter or his eyes welling up in tears. I smile just at the memory of him.

I’ve always envied people with that kind of unabashed emotional range. I suspect it’s how life really could be lived if we weren’t so uptight about things in general.

My own emotional repertoire is pretty average, but I think I’ve gotten better with age at expressing in both writing and speech how I feel about things. Feelings are not to be confused with opinions, which I’ve always had in abundance. I can express what I think about something with relative ease. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know what punches my buttons. Being able to express myself passionately and clearly on a subject helps keep me sane. But punditry is a world away from plumbing the depths of the human heart, and then putting words to what’s found there. I’ve only known a few Norms in my life, for whom emotions are expressed authentically and constructively. Most of the rest of us—and this is especially true of men—are emotionally handicapped. We see people like Dr. Phil and gag, and figure no good can come of that kind of talk. And so we don’t even try to express what clouds our thoughts or brightens our spirits.

I spent a couple of hours on Saturday with some friends in what they call mountainside prayer. At 7:15 every Saturday a group of men from Iglesia Emanuel gather at a park outside Corvallis and pray aloud as the sun rises over the distant Cascade Range. They pray for themselves and their families, for their church, for the creation that spreads out before them, and for each other. Most of what’s spoken is Spanish, so I don’t understand it all, but any time I’m with these men I’m captivated by how expressive they are both verbally and physically. They complain to God. They beseech him. They glorify and praise his name. They shed tears of gratitude. Sometimes they just stand in silence--which is what I mostly do. I have a lot to learn from my Hispanic brothers in how to express love and appreciation. They teach me what it means to be fully human, to face all that life throws at us and to remain honest about the results.

I’m not nearly as good as they are at expressing vulnerability. I’ve noticed this about myself most notably as I’ve dealt with the implications of my cancer diagnosis. I continue to experience fear and doubt, and have not always done well at expressing them. The times I’ve been most burdened are when I’ve felt most alone. I don’t know how else to be. Those to whom I’m closest are not equipped to go there; I’m not sure they’re meant to. There are some things I withhold from others on account of some sense of inadequacy. The sadness I sometimes feel, however, has always been met by God’s comfort and ultimately by his peace. He meets me in my need. That simple sentence doesn’t do justice to what happens in that transaction, but it's a mystery I happily accept. I think of it as driving through a tunnel that bends such that the light at the far end is not immediately visible. It soon appears, however, and eventually I bolt back into the world of color and beauty. The sadness I feel while in the tunnel seems unworthy, but it is very real. It’s an emotion with which I haven’t yet come to terms.

I do much better with joy. Ask me about the good things that come of a bad situation and I’m ready with an answer. We were made to experience emotions, but as with most of life, we do so imperfectly. If our handicap is not limited range then it may be the complete absence of a particular emotion. Something always seems to be missing. The ties of real affection and love go far in compensating for whatever else we may lack. That is what I count upon in both extending care to others and in receiving it back. My heart is rarely to be found on my sleeve, but I’m reasonably confident I have one beating in my chest. That will have to be good enough as I continue to discover more of how God has created me and what I'm supposed to make of how he's done it.


Rebecca and Andy said...

My name is Andy and I am a stage four melanoma patient. I am currently a patient at MD Anderson but live in Oklahoma. I have been through numerous treatments and surgeries including biochemo, and am currently finishing another round of chemo. this week, and have at least two more surgeries to go. I, although not a writer, do attempt a blog. One commitment I made from the beginning was to be honest about how I am doing. Lately it hasn't been easy. Reading yours helped me a lot. Thank you.

Rick, AVFC California Supporters said...

Peter, thank you again for sharing your thoughts with the world. Letting people close to our inner most feelings is scary, but as we continue to trust in Him, the Holy Spirit will give us the courage that we never had.

Carl Pelz said...

Thank you Peter, for being vulnerable and expressing so well what most of us feel is ineffable.