Okay, relax. I’ve just had a nightmare of a weekend but it’s time to go to church and I’m not about to bluster into a sea of people as an emotional wreak, even though I know my fellow churchgoers would respond with empathy. I just don’t feel totally comfortable with appearing that way in public. Is that wrong?
James 5:26 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” I have been blessed to attend a church that practices this. If I ever need to talk to someone about my struggles, my anxieties, or anything else, I can pull them aside and confide in them. It’s a freedom which is there for me like a safety net.
So confession: I have gone to church sleep-deprived, crabby, depressed, sick, tipsy, reluctant, emotionally drained, and, yes, hungover. For me personally, it has been my behavioral impulse and preference to put on a calm face and converse with fellow churchgoers about the weather and coursework and good restaurants in Norwich. I allow how I feel on the inside to differ with how I appear to feel on the outside.
I want to question something. Why does what we feel on the inside commonly translate to ‘how we really feel’? When actually, our inside feeling is just as questionable as our outside. After all, “what we feel is just what we show to ourselves.”*
Maybe external emotion can be just as authentic as internal. The way we act on the outside is “a crafting of public character rather than an externalization of an internal state.”** In this sense, I don’t believe that I’m ‘hiding my true self’ when I distance myself from the negative emotions that have otherwise dominated me outside of church. Performing a calm persona when you were anxious ten minute ago isn’t dishonest, it’s just you determining your character in the public sphere.
So when you ask me how my week was, as suspicious as it may seem for me to only mention the happy things and neglect the not-so-happy things, I still made a choice to represent this specific – and authentic – character to you. Choice is “central to…the project of individual authenticity.”***
I value my church family when I don’t feel pressured to open myself up to them, as I can be uncomfortable doing so. It’s made me realize that church is a place where we can be vulnerable with each other, but we don’t have to be. It reminds me of my own family. I can call up my mom, my dad, or my brother anytime if there’s something bothering me, but I’m also not obligated to. It’s a freedom that has taught me to trust them. When I do call them up, I know it’s not because I feel like I have to, but because I truly believe that they’re there for me.
It makes me think of a time when I was feeling stressed about work. I went out to eat with my friend who, sensing my anxiety, said:
“This is the point when you decide whether or not to tell me what’s up.”
It was a comforting feeling to know that I had a choice.
For the record, I did end up telling her what was up. And it felt good.
* Parkinson, Brian, Ideas and Realities of Emotion, (New York: Routledge, 1995), pg. 7
** Manolescu, Beth Innocenti, ‘Religious Reasons for Campbell’s View of Emotional Appeals in Philosophy of Rhetoric,’ Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37 (2007), 173