Tag Archive | Feelings

An Open Letter to No One

I am sick and tired of open letters.  It’s a meme I wish would die a thousand deaths.

Some time ago, I posted my response to Joe Dallas’ “To My Gay Angry Friend” (you can read those posts here, here, and here).  The other day, I read a post titled, “An Open Letter To The Girl In The Dressing Room.”  Those are only two examples of this “open letter” idea, two among a sea of similar blog posts.

The thing is, I understand why people write these things.  We all have feelings that we need to explore after our encounters with others and the world.  Situations can be triggering for us due to our own past or because of what we’ve seen loved ones experience.  As a person who loves words, both written and spoken, I understand this need.

But, people, this is not the way to deal with our feelings.  There are three serious problems with these “open letter”-style blog posts.

First, the open letter puts our own overlay onto the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Both the posts I mentioned above, as well as nearly all other similar posts, make assumptions about the people to whom the letters are written.  Joe Dallas assumed that the man with the sign was gay and that he was angry.  Lauren Alexander made assumptions about what specific thoughts the woman in the dressing room was having.  It’s entirely possible that they were right, but they could not possibly know that without speaking directly to the people in question.

What they did do, however, was an inappropriate hijacking of those people’s inner life.  They confused their own prior experiences and feelings for those of another person.  This is wrong.  It takes away someone else’s ownership of his or her feelings and actions.  It takes away that person’s right to express him- or herself as he or she chooses.  It reduces another human being to an object, something that feeds our own personal need to express our feelings.

Second, the open letter fails to take any real action, or to make any real human connection.  Both Joe Dallas and Lauren Alexander comment that they did not engage with the other person of whom they spoke.  Mr. Dallas chalks this up to business; Ms. Alexander to not wanting to be creepy.  The sad thing is, their failure to connect didn’t just prevent them from knowing what real feelings those people were having in that moment.  It also prevented them from doing any real good in the lives of those individuals.

I strongly suspect that one reason some people (and I am not specifically referring to the aforementioned bloggers) don’t engage is exactly for that reason.  They don’t want to deal with whatever they might have to face if they take the risk of interacting.  They would rather use their almost-meetings as blog post fodder, rather than find ways to connect and help.  I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel uncomfortable walking over to strange people in restaurants and stores.  But if we don’t take the risk and meet the other person, then we lose our right to impose our view of their feelings on them.

Third, the open letter almost never reaches its purported audience.  I realize that’s not usually the point.  The point is to write something that will possibly touch people who are struggling with similar issues.  If that’s the reason for the blog post, however, why not write it generically?  Or write about our own feelings and thoughts?  Or respond to a blog post that someone else wrote on a similar subject?  There are many better ways to handle tough subjects than coming at them sideways through the lens of what we think a random stranger might have been feelings.

Again, I believe there is an underlying fear in these open letters.  Sometimes, it can be hard to admit that something we saw stirs up past pain.  We may need a way to get ourselves into a place where we can freely write about our deepest wounds.  But I believe this can be done without transferring our feelings onto others.  Instead of making claims about what someone might have been thinking in a dressing room or outside a restaurant, why not admit that their actions—rather than their feelings—stirred the waters in our souls?

I am sure that reading (and perhaps writing) these open letters can be healing for some people.  But we need to be careful that our own healing doesn’t come at the expense of usurping someone else’s agency over his or her own experiences and feelings.

Un-Feelings

Sometimes, it’s easy for us as Christians to forget that we are free. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to doctrines which bind us through legalism. All that can ever lead to is feelings of shame. Faith in Christ cannot ever be about being ashamed, because that is not love or grace. A legalistic church environment denies basic, common human needs and feelings. When we live in that kind of space for any length of time, it leads to both suppression and repression.

We may be used to hearing the term “repression” in the context of sexual expression. It is often presented as an accusation by a non-religious person towards a person of faith and can be roughly translated as “prude.” A person may be referred to as “repressed” because he or she believes pornography to be unhealthy sexuality, for example.

Sexuality is only one aspect of repression, however, and the above example is a misapplication of the term. A person whose moral values lead him or her to conclude that a particular action or expression of feelings is wrong is not necessarily repressing anything. The reason for this is that repression refers to unconscious exclusion or avoidance of feelings or desires. A person with the value that murder is wrong is not repressing anger, merely making a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger.

This concept is markedly different from suppression, which is a conscious avoidance of feelings and desires one deems negative. Parents often suppress their own needs in favor of meeting the needs of their children. This is entirely normal when a child is an infant; it is not normal when a child is an adolescent.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with legalistic church doctrine. Legalism as a measure of church doctrine is a way for church leadership to control the flock. It has little to do with actual righteous living or humbly following and serving a gracious and merciful God. Legalism, when practiced as church mission, is self-serving. Its aim is to create a group of like-minded and like-behaving people in order to project a certain image. It concerns itself not with love and life but with doctrinal purity.

In the end, this leads many people within those rigid confines to both suppress and repress their natural human feelings and desires. People begin to believe consciously that their feelings are sinful, and attempt to control themselves by denying their needs for self-expression. They may also begin to subconsciously avoid certain feelings because it is too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge their existence.

Sadly, this kind of thing happens even when a church has healthy boundaries and the leadership are attempting to guide the people without legalism. This brings me to the point I want to make.  One Sunday, for example, my son came home from his Sunday school class in which children’s very real feelings were denied. His sister expressed a “what if” type of concern, and I reassured her that we would take care of her. He piped up with, “You shouldn’t worry, worry is a sin.” I would very much like to know who used those words on my eight-year-old in such a way that he repeated them back to deny his sister the right to express her fears.

Children should not be told that their fears are “sin.” The world is a big and sometimes scary place to a young child. When a child has a fear, the correct course of action is not to scold a child for “worrying.” The correct response is to reassure the child that he or she is loved by God and the people in the church and that we are here for them. There are other ways, of course, of helping children feel safe, but that’s a basic beginning.

Not only that, the sentiment isn’t even Biblically true. It may be inferred if one wants to take certain Scriptures in a particular way. But the statement, “Worry is a sin” cannot be found within the pages of the Bible. We do find the idea that worrying alone, without faith, is a useless pursuit. But even that is a difficult concept to bring to children. One way it can be handled with older children is to ask if their worry has made the situation go away, or if they have had to trust an adult or pray about it. But for very young children, no more is needed than care and reassurance.

How often do churches make the same mistake with adults?  Rather than helping people explore healthy self-expression, we simply tell them their feelings are “wrong” or “sinful” or that God doesn’t “want” us to have those feelings.  The church becomes the thought police.  From that stems the shame, leading to people denying, in one way or another, that they have those internal thoughts.  People are afraid to be honest with themselves and others, and perhaps even with God.

Yet the truth is that the more open we are with ourselves, other people, and God, the deeper our relationships become.  God doesn’t want us to clean ourselves up, it’s His job.  He wants us to bring every part of ourselves to Him, keeping nothing back.  Not because He wants to judge us, but because He loves us and wants to crack us open that we can replace (not reject) those hurting, insecure, and sinful parts of ourselves with His grace and His desires.

I admit I struggle with this.  I still have a lot of trouble being completely open about some of the things in my life.  But I’m trusting God to fill those parts of my life with His Life, daily making me whole.

Hurt and Angry

Forgive me, as I type this I am at the end of my rope.  It’s been one hell of a week.  Too much has happened in a short period of time.

I’m not normally very open about my feelings when something serious is going on.  Part of that is the irrational belief I have that whatever I experience pales in comparison to what my friends have to endure.  And I don’t want to be specific, as I feel it would be unproductive, bordering on public gossip, and could cause irreparable damage to a fragile relationship.

All that said, I’m angry and hurt beyond what I’ve experienced in recent years.  However it happened, I’ve become a doormat in one of my relationships.  The hard part is, I want to be forgiving and loving.  I want things to work out for the best.  I don’t want to hurt anyone else, even unintentionally.  I find myself walking that fine line between accepting another person, warts and all, and allowing myself to be used.

I called someone else on her behavior.  My hope was not to make her feel bad, but to improve a situation that had been brewing for some time.  Instead, she became defensive and made accusations back at me.  It hurt.  Not because I believe I am perfect, or even that what she said is untrue (at least, some of it).  It was just a flat-out denial that she has any responsibility or that there is any need to change.  She seems content to believe the lies she tells herself, making sure that the rest of us know that we are the problem.

What is left is a broken relationship that I am not sure can be mended.  Right now, it doesn’t feel like there is any way to move beyond the place we have found ourselves.  Too much is at stake.  I want to give up, but that doesn’t seem right either.  The “fix-it girl” in me wants to rewind, take the blame, and say, “Yes, you’re right.”  But in my heart, I know that can’t, and shouldn’t, happen.

My heart is grieving the loss that seems inevitable.