Being Emotionally Open in an Emotionally Closed Society
I had a wonderful Christmas holiday. My son, Shawn and his girlfriend Rebecca visited from California, where Shawn goes to Stanford University. Actually they had visited for part of the week before Christmas, and had to leave right before the actual holiday. I couldn’t shut up the whole time they were here! I found myself more enthusiastic and boisterous than usual. I couldn’t seem to contain myself! My son played the guitar and sang one evening, and I was moved by how unbelievably good he was! It had been years since he had last played for me. Rebecca is an opera singer. That same night she brought us all to tears, so beautiful was her rendition of “Oh Holy Night”! I have never heard a voice like that! We all talked about “real” things, you know, those things that we care deeply about, are deeply moved by, etc. We allowed space and safety (lack of any judgment), so each of us could be fully authentic, playful, and open. It was wonderful!On Christmas morning, along with all the excitement and amusement of watching our grandchildren opening presents and my awareness and appreciation that it was Jesus’ birthday that we were really celebrating, I felt a background sadness on my “inner canvas”. I knew I was both happy for the day, happy for my inclusion in my “adopted” Southern family’s celebration (I have no more Family in the North). But my sadness seemed to mean more than the loss of my “Northern” family, and more than missing my son and his girlfriend. I didn’t share that. We’re “supposed to” be happy on Christmas!
The day after Christmas, during my morning prayers, I asked to know what my sadness was about. Later that morning, on the way to our town dump the answer came. I realized that with my son Shawn, (who recently told me he wanted to know me better), and Rebecca, who is one of the most honest and open young women I have ever met), I was more fully open and demonstrative with my feelings. I held back nothing, and it feels so good to be “all the way” yourself, with no defenses or reservations! I made the effort for Shawn, and with Rebecca’s openness it was easy. Even if no one else “got it”, she did. There’s nothing more uncomfortable, than to share a part of yourself, and get blank stares.
Becoming part of a new family, and a new culture takes many years. My wife Susan and I have known each other for 11 years, and know each other well. However, we came from families that were repressed. You know, where “politeness” replaces authenticity, or that only certain feelings and issues are ever allowed to be expressed. We learned through therapy to be more open, and had many friends “up North” who did the same thing. We all “broke out of the boxes” we were in, and with each other’s support; authenticity and expression came more naturally.
I remember 5 or 6 years ago, when we moved to The South, my mother in law told me directly to call her by her first name. When I actually did, she was angry at me for weeks, and so were other members of the family. Others were just amused. My wife explained to me that even though someone older tells you to use a first name, that it is understood by most, not to do that. I’m always confused by such things!
Not long ago, I took the chance and shared a very large concern I had about an issue in my “adopted Southern family”. Instead of my “complaint” being taken into consideration (having been offered, not in a judgmental or disrespectful way), I saw nothing but offense, shock, and judgment on the faces in the room. Yet I had done nothing wrong. Some families have issues that they refuse to talk about, and woe to those who bring them up! That doesn’t make it right, though. That experience made it more unsafe for me to really be myself, to share my deepest feelings.
Now, I haven’t given up. Being truly and authentically ourselves, is living without fear, and it creates a safe space for others to do the same. I think that during their visit, Rebecca’s openness, and my son’s, gave me permission to be fully open with them. I am open with others, to varying degrees, and I am fully open in my writing. My sadness on Christmas morning was acknowledgement of just how open we were for such a long time, and I missed that. I didn’t share my sadness that morning (except later, with my wife), because that would have been a social “faux pas”. That doesn’t make it right. When we hold something back like that, we hold a part of ourselves back. Sadness is about loss. My sadness that morning was about holding a part of myself back.
Overall, it is no different up North than it is in The South when it comes to this issue. Each place has its own social rules, and both societies do not provide safety enough for us to be fully authentic and honest all the time. Unwritten and unrecognized rules make it very uncomfortable to fully share one’s deepest inner feelings. Acknowledging that, constantly testing the waters, then pushing the envelope, are what we must do. On the other side of that issue, we must strive to be less judgmental, so that we create the safety for others to fully share themselves. In this way, we truly get to know each other, not some public facade put up unconsciously to provide the safety that we all feel we must have.
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