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26 Jun 2024

Not waving but drowning!

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Emotions – Are they a blessing or curse?

What are emotions anyway?

Are you waving or drowning?

To answer some of these questions, I am drawn to the Old Testament and Psalm 22, where David speaks out his emotions to God. He says this:

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry to you by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”

I’ve always been amazed that these are the exact words that Jesus spoke on the cross over a thousand years later (Matthew 27:46). What a desperate plea from a man who felt deep pain and grief. David cried out that he is a “worm and not a man”, he certainly felt worthless. He says that his “tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth” (sounds like anxiety) and that he is “in the dust of death!” Yet he calls out to God for rescue. How many of us can’t or won’t call out for rescue? How many of us seek rescue in the wrong things because of emotional pain? If you could call out for rescue, who you gonna call? (and don’t say Ghost Busters!)

I have been aware for a long time (lifetime) that many of us find feelings and emotional triggers difficult, unsafe, and often terrorising, leading to behaviours that can be unhealthy and can keep us stuck in toxic patterns. We may love God (or not), yet we stay stuck in the internal scream of emotional pain. Even after years of working through some personal traumas, I am reminded of a time a few years ago when a friend asked me to think about two words to explain my feelings and to write them down. I wrote the words “drowning” and “fear.”

I have put off writing this blog and procrastinated for months as it’s not something I want to share and write about because it means I must feel some uncomfortable emotions. Instead, I would much prefer to be in control of my triggers and hide in the numbness of a checked-out life. However, I know that if God puts something on my heart, then it’s usually for a reason. So, I am continuing to push through from a previously checked-out life and giving myself permission and space to feel.

If I had a default button for emotions, it would be to procrastinate, control, ignore, detach, hide, run, distract, and stuff down feelings to remain invisible and safe. When I became aware of my buttons, I thought they would stop me from feeling. They did for a long time until they eventually stopped working, and all the feelings that I had kept stuffed down poured out anyway all at once in emotional overload. I know that I’m not alone in having default buttons that block feelings because many of you reading or listening to this have told me yours, and I know that most of you feel overwhelmed emotionally sometimes and don’t know what to do with your feelings.

How do we then navigate life’s emotions (good and bad)? How do we deal with emotions that have never been felt? Why is it so hard to feel the uncomfortable? Do buried feelings ever die? Why is it that just when I forget to feel my feelings and go back to controlling and hiding my emotions, someone always asks, “When is the next blog, and what is the topic?” You see, I like asking questions, especially to God. He usually gives me an answer, but sometimes I don’t like it!

Jesus says:

“If anyone is to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”
(Matthew 16:24-26).

Sometimes I want to shout, but why must it be so hard? There are certainly times when I don’t want to pick up my cross daily! (Tantrum)

So – if I have to pick up my cross daily, does that mean I also have to feel my emotions daily? I’m unsure that I want to, as my emotions are often heavy and challenging. Can I really go through the process of feeling my emotions and come through the other side? Can you?

The conviction in my heart drives me on, so here is my take on feelings and triggers. I say “triggers” here because when I get triggered, it certainly feels like I’m about to be shot!

I’ve always had two types of battle in my emotional life. One in which I can let go and feel my feelings, knowing that I have hope and will come through. The other type is a white-knuckle ride consisting of control, pain, and abandonment. The triggers are the same, yet the outcomes are very different. Your life experiences may differ from mine, yet I know that feelings are universal – we all have them. Ask yourself, “What do I do with my feelings? Do I seek to control and bury them alive?”

Emotions and feelings have always been challenging for me, so writing this blog has meant I’ve had to dive deep under the water with my eyes open, waiting for an emotion to appear. I’ve recently faced some stressful and unusual situations that have pushed my buttons to the extreme, forcing me to feel many emotions. I’ve even had to go looking for feelings I didn’t like. You will never guess what I saw? I saw sharks, stingrays, and a few clownfish! Im sure one of the clown fish said his name was Nemo. The truth is that I spent a long time swimming in the ocean of emotions, and sometimes I go under. Emotions are as deep as the ocean for some of us because the fear of feeling the difficult ones can be overwhelming.

The Bible talks about being “sober-minded”. Imagine being sober in your mind all the time. My emotional life has been far from calm and sober; it’s been more of a stormy blast that settles briefly before the waves again take me under. I sometimes feel that I’m going to drown, but then the waves still themselves for a brief time before inevitably returning. It can be like a cycle of drowning, recovering and then repeating this process over and over. How exhausting. Are you always in the water waiting for the next wave? I find myself asking God – How many times will I almost have to drown? Where are you, God, in our emotions? I’ve asked these questions over the years as my relationship, trust and faith in God have grown. And guess what – He gave me the answer very clearly. Before I talk about the answer, I’m drawn back to a time when I remember reading a short poem called “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith. This was many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, years before I knew the love of Jesus.

It’s worth taking time to read it:

“Nobody heard him the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought.
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking.
And now he’s dead.
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
OH, no no no, it was too cold always (still the dead man lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life and not waving but drowning.”

I remember reading for the first time like it was yesterday. It was one rare moment when time stood still, and I felt connected to something.

Imagine feeling connected to a drowning man in a poem, connected to the frantic waving, (help me) connected to the isolation and emotional pain of being dead and still moaning, connected to being misunderstood and the sense of a deeply accepted sadness of life. When you read the poem, were you aware of the huge gap between inner feelings and outward appearance? If not, go back and read it again. You see, I connected to this because I was drowning too! Why could I not speak out, “help me”? Why was drowning easier than dealing with my feelings? The answer was that I didn’t know how to speak out what I was feeling, and I didn’t know what I was feeling anyway. I learnt to use food instead of feeling and to really use and abuse it. Binge eating mainly. Food to soothe, food to distract, food to punish, to relieve the shame, abandonment, anger, sadness, loneliness, exhaustion, jealousy, worry, impatience…… I developed a cycle of self-hatred and a way of staying safe (or so I thought). Anything rather than feel! So much fear. In the Bible, there is a scripture that says this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love!” (1 John 4:18). I spent most of my life living in fear and punishing myself. I came to expect punishment and did a powerful job of punishing myself and others. Without Jesus, this was my reality.

We are not alone in running from our feelings. In 1 Kings 19:3-5, Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. He sat down and prayed that he might die. You see, I believe emotions buried do not die but sit in the body and mind. Lurking until a little trigger comes along to take a shot, as our body and mind prepare to run or fight, as the chemicals run through our bodies, and we react rather than respond to whatever it is we are feeling. I get shot often! The trigger can come from nowhere but usually from an unhealed, buried place. My triggers are many, and they are still working their way to the surface. I’m still learning how to process emotions as they come up, and I find myself dealing with the ones that rise up in triggers from the past. Maturing emotionally hasn’t been a natural progression for me.

I can remember peeping from behind doors in my childhood home, watching my mum’s reaction to things happening around her. My mum and dad were emotionally unavailable due to their own upbringing and grief of losing a daughter. It was impossible to connect to them emotionally and physically through no fault or intention on their part. I studied my mum closely, waiting for an opportunity to connect; I don’t remember there being one. I’m sure there were some moments, but I don’t remember. I have a lot of blanks. I was trying to find and watch for a place or a time to fit in. Childhood can be a lonely time for many, as it certainly was in our family, as each sibling and parent disconnected from one another for survival. I was so disconnected that I used to think or pretend I was adopted, even going to the lengths of looking for a certificate. I was also deemed a “sensitive “child, something which I tried to hide too. I always wanted to find answers to questions about who I was (my identity). The problem was I didn’t know what the questions were, and I couldn’t describe my feelings. I just knew I felt disconnected from life, disconnected from my body, and trapped in my mind. I didn’t realise my need for God.

I had to know my need for something other than myself. I had to get to a place of trying everything to bury alive my feelings until they started to scream very loudly. I had to know life in the grave to understand my need for God. I had to ask for help.

Healing and God’s answer

The answer for me, after decades of masking, dishonesty, hiding and self-sufficiency, eventually came as a man who died on a cross and rose again. I know that sounds insane to anyone who has never met Jesus, but it’s my story, and I can only speak about my own experience.

The Bible is filled with examples of Jesus having emotions and stories of him feeling emotions deeply. In the garden of Gethsemane, he cried out in pain and anguish. Yes, he cried out. He then submitted himself to God. He didn’t ignore his pain or numb it. He also felt negative emotions like anger. In Mark 3:5, he looked around in anger and was deeply distressed at the people’s stubborn hearts. In the Bible Jesus is also seen to have joy when he celebrated at weddings and festivals. He told his disciples:

“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full”
(John 15:11).

When someone told me that if I believed in Jesus that I shouldn’t feel anxiety and perhaps I didn’t have enough faith, I sensed inside that they were wrong. So, I went to the Bible and prayed and It’s so clear that Jesus felt all his emotions fully and healthily, He also shows us how to treat one another when they are hurting emotionally. We are meant to share in each other’s lives. I came to realise that EMOTIONS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM; it’s our RESPONSE to them that causes the problems. Responses to emotional neglect, responses to grief, responses to suffering pain and trauma, and responses to joy, too.

So, if Jesus didn’t ignore his pain, why do we think we can get away without facing ours? We are meant to feel our feelings. They come up eventually, anyway. We can feel them or stay stuck. I’m learning that my feelings often connect me to God and others, and it’s this that brings me through.

Can we be present with all our feelings? A few years ago, I would say no way. Yet I’m drawn to trust in the Spirit of God, which tells us we can. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 5:22, describes the emotional qualities of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control. Yes, please, I’ll have those! If we are made in God’s image, then we are all made with emotions to be felt.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible. To manage my emotional responses, I’ve had to embrace biblical truth. I’m learning to listen to the Holy Spirit (that still small voice within me) and take thoughts captive to check where my emotions are. My check is: Do I have the fruit of the Spirit? Have I become stuck? Am I hiding inside my default buttons? Am I waving or drowning?

Learning to respond to my emotions rather than them being the master of me is a message that the Bible gives.

So where in the Bible does it show ordinary people, like you and me, how to process emotions and surrender to God rather than white-knuckling with anxiety and fear? The Bible is full of people who know that they are “poor in spirit” and that they need God. One of my favourite stories is in the Old Testament (2 Kings Chapter 4). It goes like this – A widow’s husband owed a significant amount of money to a man, and the husband died. The culture of the day requested that her two sons be taken to work and pay off the debt owed, leaving the widow without financial support. This would mean that she would starve. Imagine the fear of losing her two boys and her only means of survival. She went to a man of God – Elisha the prophet to ask for help, and his reply always blows my mind. He didn’t say, “How are you feeling? Leave this to me. I will fix this”! Instead, he asked her, “What do you have?” She only had one jar of oil to her name. Elisha asked her to go to her neighbour’s house and ask for empty jars, as much as she could gather. Imagine the shame of asking her neighbours for empty jars yet she did ask, and her neighbours helped her. Elisha then told her to shut the door and pour oil from her original jar into all the jars she had collected until no oil was left. Then, she was instructed to go and sell the oil to pay her debt, and she and her sons were to live on the rest. That’s a lot of oil and a lot of emotion. It struck me that she had to ask the man of God for help; she had to ask her neighbours for help and be obedient. God didn’t remove her problems, but he gave her a way out. She had to do something. Like we do when we are emotionally overwhelmed – we can choose to hide and run, or share with others and God then go through the emotion in a healthy way. I wonder if the widow sold back the oil to her neighbours. She got up despite her circumstances, confessed her problems and emotions, turned to God, and moved through her fear with the help of others. What a great way to heal.

I hope that you are still with me listening or reading this, as I KNOW IT’S A LONG ONE! I’ll finish with this. I was swimming a few months ago, thinking about the poem “Not waving but drowning” and how many years I had wasted not knowing there was a way out of drowning. I saw a picture in my mind of Jesus underneath me in the water, swimming under me, with me. Like David in Psalm 22, where we started, we can cry out to God in our emotions. Like the widow, we can ask for help because God hears our cries. Jesus is the way through the rollercoaster of emotions if we will only ask him. We don’t need to drown; we can wave and know our need for God and swim with him. I don’t know about you, but I’m learning to be honest with my feelings, I’m learning to feel my feelings, I’m learning to ask for help and prayer if I need to, and I’m learning to love and be loved. I’m swimming with Jesus, going through and coming out the other side. What will you do?

If you need help, support, or want to reach out, please visit Church on the Streets’ website.

Note on Food Addiction – This is real. One of my future blogs will be around this topic and my experiences. There are many websites and online resources to support you in this area. For now, please know that you are not alone.

Sarah x