When We Would Rather Cry Than Smile

EmotionsMost of us go about our business each day quietly bearing burdens that we rarely mention. We tend to downplay our worries and sorrows, instead displaying a stiff upper lip and carrying on as if nothing has happened. When things become too much for us and we feel broken, we may find ourselves unable to keep it together. We experience a moment when we confide our woes or shed tears without the usual filters that we place on our feelings. Then there are those among us who always manage to keep a public face of strength and optimism even when they feel as though they are dying inside. We each have our unique ways of dealing with death, disappointment and hurt.

In today’s world there are so many avenues for venting our feelings, sometimes anonymously. We may adopt a pseudonym and comment on Disqus without anyone ever knowing who we are. We write in our diaries and journals and then lock them away for nobody’s eyes but our own. It is when we take our thoughts to the places of public discourse that we open ourselves to the slings and arrows of misunderstanding and criticism. Casually written words lack the meaning and nuances of a one on one conversation. Our ideas become twisted into the perceptions of someone who doesn’t really understand us. There are no intonations or facial expressions to bring subtlety to the discussion. It becomes difficult to clarify our intent after the fact or to exclaim, “That’s not what I meant at all.” Once we have to defend ourselves the true effect of what we had hoped to say is lost. Others have decided who we are.

Most people use public discourse to simply keep in touch with the outside world. They maintain a lighthearted front and may even be just naturally happy and optimistic. Their posts show us the wonderfulness of their lives. They stay away from political commentaries or any subject that might be misconstrued. They have learned how to be wary of revealing too many of their private thoughts. We sometimes wonder if their worlds are as truly perfect as they seem to be.

Braver souls continually allow us inside their heads. They have learned that this may be a dangerous thing to do but don’t appear to worry about what others may think. If they voice their beliefs they are likely to anger those whose thoughts are different. If they open their hearts and let us see their pain and suffering some will turn away in discomfort. It is risky to be honest about how we really feel, especially when the emotion that is ruling us in a particular moment is anger. Many among us prefer not to see the fears and uncertainties that are a part of each and every one of us and yet it should not be so. The truth is that no matter how hard we try to create perfect images of ourselves, the time comes in all lives when we only want to cry or scream or lock ourselves away in the dark. We feel a profound need for human compassion and understanding at the very times when we feel the most uncertain that it will be available to us. Sadly, we are sometimes ignored, spurned and even judged by how we react to life’s horrors.

Mike and I watched a documentary on Friday called The Flat. It was an innocuous title for a moving film. It all began when a young man’s grandmother died in Tel Aviv. He and members of his family gathered at the apartment where his grandmother had lived to help with the task of culling through her possessions to determine what was worth keeping and what needed to go. It soon became apparent that the home was a treasure trove of memories and history that opened up many questions about who the deceased woman had really been. The young man, a filmmaker, began an emotional journey along with his mother that would take them back to Germany.

The story itself was intriguing but I was even more fascinated by the way that the people dealt with their emotions. The young man became intensely curious about his grandparents’ past that had always been mysteriously left unmentioned. His mother insisted that what had happened to her mother and father before coming to Tel Aviv was in reality none of their business. She insisted that her parents only wanted to move forward in life and that she had respected their wishes, never probing to find the missing pieces of their stories.

As the tale unfolded the young man was visibly moved at every turn. He was upset that his grandmother’s prize book collection seemed to be worthless to everyone save himself. He grieved to learn that his great grandmother had perished in a concentration camp. He wondered aloud how his own mother might be so cavalier about all of their discoveries. She in turn continued to act as though she had been unaffected by the revelations that had been so surprising to her son. Sadly not even the more emotive son appeared to notice that his mother’s eyes told a story far different from the one that she tried so hard to portray. They displayed a deep and enduring sadness that was impossible to hide.

Grandmother, mother and son each approached the world in differing manners. The elder woman lived as though her life had never been touched by unspeakable tragedy. Her daughter respected those wishes, never asking painful questions. She simply played along with the pretense out of respect. The grandson was from a different generation. He needed to know the truth and to grieve for a family that he had never truly known. Thus it is with all of humanity. We choose different ways of reacting to life.

I am not an expert in the psychology of emotions. I’m not certain what kind of behavior is best. I suspect that it must be very difficult to maintain a steadying composure even in the face of tragedy. A stiff upper lip may serve well at work but to also maintain it in private must be truly painful. Likewise respecting another’s choices is something that we all must do from time to time but denying the way that we really feel is no small task. I suspect that allowing the natural God given feelings that we all have to come to the surface is the healthiest way to live. Admitting that we are feeling despair or anger in a given situation is akin to accepting that we are human. It does not seem necessary or even healthy to always be strong.

It really is okay to sometimes admit that we feel lost or even unappreciated. There are things that happen that make no sense, that seem so unfair. We can’t be expected to accept every aspect of our fates with smiles. It is appropriate that we “rage against the dying of the light.” It makes sense that we admit to how much we miss someone who is gone. Our feelings are very real and if we embrace them when they are appropriate, they will help us to overcome the most difficult moments of our lives.

My mother’s psychiatrist once told her that the sadness and depression that she felt after her mother died had nothing to do with the depression that was part of her bipolar disorder. He encouraged her to cry over the loss of her mother, noting that in doing so she was demonstrating just how normal she was.

We should not fear our emotions. Each of them was given to us for a valid reason. We simply need to learn how to embrace them appropriately. Nobody is immune from experiencing the entire range of feelings during a lifetime. We should celebrate those who are courageous enough to free themselves from the artificial constraints that our society sometimes imposes on us. There is no dishonor in letting the world know that, at least for the moment, we would rather cry than smile.


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