Catharsis

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In ancient Greece (which was not yet known as Greece) the Athenian government provided patronage to the theater using taxes to pay writers, actors and directors. The leaders encouraged citizens to attend plays, particularly tragedies. The thinking was that such productions were cathartic, a means of forcing emotions and even tears to the surface. The beliefs was that in becoming engrossed in tragic stories and reacting to them the members of the audience eliminated some of the toxins that were lurking in their bodies making them sick. Crying was viewed as a healthy reaction and a release of the poisonous effects of life’s everyday stresses. 

All across the globe this has been a most difficult year. We feel a sense of loss and grief. In our country alone over half a million people have died from COVID 19 and the toll continues from week to week. Even if we do not personally know someone who is part of this horrific statistic we feel the sorrow of those who have said goodbye to loved ones in the most unexpected of ways. Death is never easy to endure. It scars our hearts and reminds us of our own vulnerabilities. In this year it somehow seems more horrific than ever.

People we know have been sick. Many have lost their jobs and have searched for months unsuccessfully for new work. We hear of individuals and families who are living on an economic edge, frightened of being evicted, having to depend on the kindness of friends or family or strangers. In the midst of our global pandemic we have witnessed political unrest and upheaval, a time of almost unparalleled historical division unless we look to civil wars. Friends and family members are still becoming ill with things other than COVID and some of them are dying as well. Our rituals and traditions have temporarily become shells of themselves as we cope with isolation from one another. So little feels normal or natural. The very gatherings that so often brought us respite from the trials of daily life are not available. 

Grief, loss, sorrow have created a spate of violence. Suicides are on the rise. We are struggling to cope with emotions that are making us sick but instead of acknowledging them we are more likely to attempt to be stoic and optimistic, to ignore the reality of our feelings. Psychologists tells us that we might be better served to take a bit of advice from the Athenians and allow ourselves to release the poisons of our minds in a cathartic rush of tears. Instead of running away from how we are feeling we should instead embrace the reality of our genuine fears and anger and sorrow. Facing the tragedy of the moment and expelling our pent up reactions to this year of living so unnaturally is good for our souls, a panacea for our sorrow. 

Optimism is a good thing but it does not have to deny reality nor be devoid of moments when we allow ourselves to cry. We are bound to feel weary, hurt, overwhelmed because we are human. Running away from our feelings in an effort to remain continually happy is a fruitless and destructive effort. Facing our emotions, freeing them from our bodies, giving ourselves time to heal and then moving forward is a more potent form of optimism. 

It is important that we be aware both of our own grief and that of those around us. So often we become anxious around sorrow or depression and try to talk people out of their emotions rather than simply supporting them as they struggle to return to a state of happiness. Whether someone is venting anger or disappointment or defeat we should be willing to provide understanding hearts. We would not look away from someone bleeding on the street but so often we ignore emotional cries for help. We tell the one who is hurting to get a grip or to pray to God when their state of mind is far too muddled to find an easy way out of darkness. When we deny depression or anxiety as a weakness rather than a medical condition we denigrate the reality of human struggle. 

It is tempting to look at someone whose life appears to be perfection and believe that all is well. We may even envy that person, but experience has shown us that even a highly successful and hilariously funny person like Robin Williams may be slowly dying from a depression so dark that it eats away at the soul. We may turn away from an angry individual who seems to have little pity for anyone else. We may think of this person as selfish and uncaring when he or she may in fact be hurting intensely. The cause of ugly effects is often derived from deep seated abuse, absence of love, and longing for acceptance. 

This year has not just been a medical nightmare but also an emotional horror. It should be okay for any of us to admit to the sorrows we are feeling. Tears should be viewed as a good way to release our toxins. We are complex beings who bring a lifetime of experiences and beliefs to this crisis. The vast majority of us want nothing more than to stop the pain that seems so rampant. Our way forward is to be found in kindness, empathy, honesty, acceptance of our differences and our truths. Our individual fears are very real and should never become the butt of ridicule or disdain. 

This can become a year of hopefulness as long as we understand that our shared and individual problems will not miraculously go away. It is in how we choose to handle them together that we will find the comfort and security that we seek. It is in embracing one another and shedding our collective tears that we will find the light of happiness for which we long. We have a great deal of work to do if we are to reach that point. We might begin by facing our own grief and then turning to those around us.