When the Levee Breaks...
+ Giving Sorrow Space
For the first 32 years of my life, I lived to shut my emotions down. Like, literally…shut 👏 it 👏 down. 👏 As a kid, I learned how to deal with life and my emotions on my own, and I coped by hiding them away, making myself more presentable—more palatable as a human being. With childhood trauma, I felt ugly, and I was often put in positions where I had to shove my emotions deep down to figure out how to survive the road ahead. I thought getting to safety meant winning the love of people, and I figured the people around me didn’t want some sad sap. They wanted smiles. So, I learned to hide sadness by plastering a smile on my face. I learned to hide well, and I was good at it.
My propensity to hide my feelings didn’t change when I became an adult. When I was 23, my dad died. It’s been over ten years, and writing about it still makes me weepy. Just before his funeral, I went into worker-bee mode—flitting about from task to task. I’d go from greeting visitors and friends I had grown up with to speaking to the funeral coordinator, making sure the music was cued up, to saying hello to the pastor, thanking him for loving me enough to speak at my non-church-going father’s funeral to handing my credit card to the financial coordinator who needed me to pay for some such thing. I knew stopping meant tears. Tears meant becoming less palatable as a person. So, when there was nothing else to do, I went to the kitchen to arrange the sandwiches someone brought in for the family to eat.
I’ll add briefly, just seven months prior, my first baby boy was born. So, as a young, tired, and grieving mom, I planned my dad’s funeral and coordinated services all on very little sleep with a tubby tyke on my hip. My uncle, who had been watching me the day of the funeral, tracked me down in the kitchen as I mindlessly arranged the sandwiches to ask me, “Have you stopped just once today?” I continued pushing sandwiches around as I said, “No, I can’t afford to.” Losing his own dad a few years prior, he knew exactly what I was hiding. He knew at some point the levee would break. He was trying to give me a permission slip to feel all the emotions I tucked away. But like the RoadRunner fleeing Wile E. Coyote, I attached the permission slip to some TNT and sped away.
I worked to build the emotional dam that restrained my sadness, anger, grief, and fear for decades. I couldn’t afford to turn people off with my emotions. After all the trauma and heartache, I had prepared the dam to hold, only allowing the occasional controlled release. Not only were my emotions and my sorrow a liability, threatening to flood everyone I loved out, but I found myself in faith spaces that stamped them as liabilities, too.
American culture often views anger, sorrow, grief, and fear as obstacles—not opportunities—in the life of faith. People cast holy lament and sorrow off as victimization and self-pity. We can’t be “productive” in grief; thus, we vilify it. So, nine years after Dad died, the other shoe dropped. My life and support system began falling apart in the wake of religious trauma, and I prepared myself to do maintenance on the dam—not allowing myself to fall victim to feelings yet again. Mercifully, though, it took one sentence from a friend to change the course of my story: “God can handle your anger even when other people cannot.”
And the dam broke.
I honestly believe I can write in the ways I do—with assurance, hope, and love—because I am healing. Knowing God could handle the weight of my emotions was the key to the lock that opened the door to healing. My public-facing words are the fruit of sacred work done through giving my emotions space. I let myself feel my anger because I realized anger is a facet of lament—it grieves the wrongness of injustice. I let myself feel my grief because my sorrow remembers the beauty of what was—it declares the loss real. I acknowledge and name the fear that stills me because my fear gives me time to pause—I have the space I need to discern the next right step.
I reject the wholesale belief that declares ALL anger, grief, and fear as evil and further indication of our sinful distrust of God. Our emotions are a tremendous opportunity for us to move in trust toward God. Engaging my grief means I can empathize with the story of Job who says he would rather have died the day he was born than navigate his loss (Job 3). Engaging my fear means I can identify with Adam and Eve who had to reckon with the hostility of the world as they left the safety of Eden (Genesis 3:23, 24). Engaging my anger means I empathize with Jesus as he flipped the tables of the moneychangers who were exploiting God’s people (John 2:13-16). Emotions have a place in the biblical accounts, in moving us forward in faith. Our distrust of God can certainly be true, but expressions of our emotions can also pave the way for hope. Our anger, grief, and fear can point us to the Person of Hope.
Hear me: I’m not telling you to run into your local grocery store with sackcloth and ashes to publicly express your lament or sorrow in the produce section. You don’t have to let it all hang out in a public space for your healing to matter. My presence on social media and in podcasts is the public fruit of processing my emotions in private. But, like my uncle, I want to give you a permission slip to feel your feelings in safe spaces.
Take a second to stop. Pause. Name the ways you are avoiding or hiding your sorrow. Find a safe friend, therapist, pastor, or spiritual director with whom you can process your story. Name what makes the tears well. Think about what or Whom your lament is leading you to. Think about how your lament is reminding you of the things that mattered and people you loved. Envision a hope-filled future, and consider all the ways your grief could—just maybe—lead you there.
Naming what is grieving you helps you find your voice and agency. It is a small way you can exercise dominion in your plot of the Garden. Feel your feelings without trying to make them logical or reasonable. Feel them knowing it is a good and beautiful work, preparing ripe soil for hope to root. Feel them without editing them to make them more righteous.* Feel them in faith, knowing that the God of the grieving and sorrowful psalmists is the same gentle God who bends his ear toward you, too.
K.J. Ramsey writes, “Sadness is the souls way of saying, ‘This mattered.’” Let your sorrow remind you of all that you lost. Let your grief remind you of what mattered. In doing so, you will find the healing that comes with time, and you can move forward with wisdom.
With love and hope,
*Listening: I recently listened to an episode of Adam Young’s podcast The Place We Find Ourselves. In episode 16, “Why Lament (Surprisingly) Leads to Life and Freedom,” he defines our lament as our unedited feelings offered to God. I loved that. You can listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Reading: If you want to learn more about attachment science and consider all the ways you might be shutting down your emotions, anxiously attaching to others, or filling yourself with shame, please consider reading Attached to God: A Practical Guide to Deeper Spiritual Experience by Krispin Mayfield. I’m still processing so many thoughts I have had since reading the book, but I can attest it has been personally revelatory. (You can connect with Krispin through Instagram or Twitter.)
Thank you to those of you who have financially partnered with me and the work I have been doing as I work to provide space for others hurt or harmed in faith communities.
You can financially support me with a one-time or monthly tax-deductible donation through my partnering 501c3 organization, Fractured Atlas.
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