“This is one of the peculiar problems of our culture: we are terrified of our feelings. We think that if we give them any scope and if we don’t immediately beat them down, they will lead us down into all kinds of chaotic and destructive actions.
“But if, for a change, we would allow our feelings and look upon their comings and goings as something as beautiful and necessary as changes in the weather, the going of night and day and the four seasons, we would be at peace with ourselves.”
– Alan Watts
It was around 5:30 or so in the afternoon on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. My son – not quite 3 at the time – and I were on our way to the laundry room at Johnson State College’s adult student housing to gather up our stuff from the dryers. We were barely out our front door before a neighbor from the apartments perpendicular to us approached.
He was a few years older than me. Probably in his early 30s. He was frantic.
“Ethan. Hey, Ethan!” he said before turning back to his own front door. “Get out here!”
His wife stepped from the doorway, looking a bit embarrassed, face red and tired from crying since mid-morning, like so many of us had been. He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to me.
“Tell her she’s wrong,” he said.
“Wrong about what,” I asked, discretely nudging my son back toward our apartment.
“About being scared! She’s not supposed to be scared. That’s what they want, right? That means they’re winning!”
“Who is winning?”
The poor woman looked like she wanted to crawl under their car and never come back out.
“The terrorists!” he said. “They attacked America and want us to be scared. We shouldn’t be giving in to them like that.”
I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond to what I had to say, and I sent my little guy back inside before speaking.
“I don’t know,” I said. I”ve been pretty goddamned scared all day. When those towers came down, I was shaking like crazy. It’s terrifying stuff.”
He was incredulous. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” He grabbed his wife by the hand and took her back inside. Didn’t talk to me for a few days after that.
I’ve thought about that exchange a lot over the past 18-and-a-half years.
Sometimes I think about how his wife must have felt, not just her fear for the day’s events, but the humiliating lack of validation she felt from her own husband. Other times I think about how much I’m like her husband. Not so much with other people, but with myself.
Sometimes I think I know so much better than myself how I should react to a certain situation. “Don’t feel this way. It’s wrong. Feel that way.” On a good day, I have the same conversation with myself that I had that day with my neighbor, and I let the feelings pass over and by me, like the “changes in the weather” that Alan Watts mentioned in this piece’s opening quote.
I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the years. A big jump forward for me was coming to the understanding that I am not my feelings.
I feel sad, but I am not sadness. I am Ethan.
I feel happy, but I am not happiness. I am Ethan.
I feel depressed and/or anxious, but I am not depression and/or anxiety. I am Ethan.
Wherever you are, whatever you are dealing with right now in the midst of this COVID-19-induced chaos, pause and experience what you are feeling. Then accept that it is a passing thing, and let it pass.
As Watts said, these feelings will come and go, and they are “beautiful and necessary.”
Feelings inform our actions, and they play a part in shaping who we are. But they are not us, and you are not wrong for feeling them.
That’s all I’ve got right now. Hope it helps.