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February 3, 2021

We’re Spiritually Bypassing our Pain with Empty Positivity (& We need to Stop).

A manifesto for everyone who has let winter break their heart.

Recently, a family member reached out to me on Facebook to inquire about my miserable mood at present. Experience told me to stay reticent.

I really wanted to enjoy my New York mid-winter malaise without someone telling me all the things I should be grateful for.

Truth be told, I understand on an intellectual level that I have every reason on Earth to be giddy with joy for the fortunate set of circumstances I presently find myself in.

First of all, according to most biologists, only one sperm in a million will reach the site of fertilization. So, right off the bat, the fact that I am even in a position to wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and participate in the endless routine of showering, dressing, going to work (repeat ad nauseam) is a miracle of the highest order.

When you add that I live in the greatest country on the planet (or at least this is what I have been told for 50 years), I should try to find a party hat to match the high-visibility vest that I am required to wear every day.

All snarkiness aside, I do have much to be thankful for. But there are still times when I find it difficult to access the gratitude required to process driving a vehicle the size of a small house down an icy road as a “blessing.”

This is, of course, normal. To try to make our minds go to the “blessing” place under typical conditions can be challenging; to get ourselves there in the midst of fight-or-flight moments would take the emotional restraint of someone who has been practicing transcendental meditation for decades.

Needless to say, the family member persisted for days, and I finally gave in and admitted what was causing me to feel depressed. Her response was to remind me of all the things I should be thankful for. Honestly, I felt a little like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away at the last second.

Is it not possible to know that we should be a certain way and ignore that for the sake of indulging in our own misery? I would like to think that is entirely permissible.

Emotions are funny things. They want their own space.

Emotions are also generally not rational. You can’t quash them by focusing on how most of the world is living on less than two dollars a day.

You can’t make yourself happy by reminding yourself that you have no excuse to be grumpy or grouchy.

And so I present to you this manifesto: 

You are hereby authorized to feel your feelings without first seeking justification for those feelings. The justification is built in. You are a human being, and January just barely ended. You are probably in some state of a lockdown or have not felt the touch of another human being for too long.

Sadness is not something we should be avoiding.

I remember once reading in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet”: 

“If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.”

In other words, there’s gold in them thar tears.

Lately, I have noticed quite a few articles related to spiritual bypassing—that funny habit some people have of trying to pretend that negativity is a choice and doesn’t have to exist if we don’t allow it to.

These articles have largely made the point that negativity is something that can’t be swept under the rug by repeating positive affirmations. I suppose, in some sense, I am making a similar point. I would just like to add a distinction to what has been said.

As I walked through the woods and noticed everything dormant and covered in snow, I knew that it only appeared as if everything around me was dead. There’s a whole world underneath the snow that continues unseen, and without that hidden world, we would not have the color and majesty of the springtime.

It is the same with sadness. Without those darker feelings working on us, changing us, making us uncomfortable and somber, we couldn’t possibly grow emotionally. Our “springtime” would be a lot less colorful, as well.

And that, I fear, is one of the biggest dangers of sweeping our misery under the rug or spiritually bypassing our pain with empty positivity.

It hinders our growth and our ability to gain the knowledge we will need as we journey home.

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