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True Strength: Learning to Feel What Is

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A friend of mine is going through a dreadful divorce -- her husband is leaving her in a hostile and unkind manner, with his new girlfriend at his side. As awful as the process has been for her thus far, she recently confessed that the worst part was "not being able to go home." As she explained, she had to be strong for her 4-year-old son and clearly, in her mind, being strong meant not being sad, and certainly not showing it.

Sadness is part of every single life, with no exceptions. And yet we pretend that a life in which sadness is denied is more admirable or well-lived than one in which it is acknowledged. To feel sadness when something sad is happening is appropriate and truthful. Of course, it would not be appropriate for my friend to be laying on the floor sobbing in front of her boy, but to show him that his grown-up mommy can bear her sadness -- and recover from it -- is an important lesson for her 4-year-old to learn.

Strength is a measure of how we handle the challenges of life, not whether they show up. The challenges will come, of that we can be sure. But can we acknowledge the truth, face the hard feelings, work with them, learn from them and ultimately heal from them? These are the markers of strength.

In another recent conversation, a friend was lamenting her mother, who at age 85 has declined a lifetime of her daughter's invitations. My friend's holiday parties, family and life events -- all missed. Her mother's claim: Participating is too much trouble, or she is simply not in the mood for company. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, my friend was longing for a mother who would want to attend her daughter's dinner, but was nonetheless aware that her mother's inability to feel joy or celebrate her, and life, would make it impossible. It was a profoundly sad situation. And yet my friend's response to it felt even sadder. What all of this meant to her was that once again, she would have to pick up her mother and bring her to the party, against her wishes, where her mother would undoubtedly complain and have a bad time. When I asked my friend why she would choose this path, she said quite matter of factly that if she didn't bring her mother to the party, she (my friend) would feel sad. She said it with such certainty, as if being sad were tantamount to being dead. "But it is sad," I said, wondering why the denial of what she knew to be true was more soothing than the acceptance of it.

As a society, we have no idea how to experience and be with sadness -- or fear, anxiety, anger or frustration for that matter. We are not educated on how to manage difficult emotions, one of life's most important skills. Rather, we are taught (and are teaching our children) that sadness is the enemy and that if we allow it to exist, it will destroy us. As a result, we will do anything and everything to avoid feeling it. Even funerals are designed to make us happy, to celebrate the wonderful life the person enjoyed, but certainly not to feel sad that they are no longer here. Our entire self-help industry is tailored to help us avoid feeling sad, to teach us how to arrange our lives so that we never have to feel anything difficult. Where these programs fail however, is when we end up in a situation where we cannot control or deny our sadness. Then what? Then we are deemed weak, and worse -- failures for feeling what is actually appropriate.

In truth, we can learn to be with sadness, not to fear it, but to simply accept it as another of life's experiences that can be lived through. The fact that sadness appears is not a sign of our failure. Its absence is not a sign of strength, other than perhaps the strength of denial. Sadness is simply a part of life. The sooner we allow it a seat at our inner table, the sooner we can get on with the business of living. When we allow ourselves to feel sadness when it arrives, to embrace and bring kindness to it -- not judge ourselves for experiencing it -- it is then that we grow truly strong. We know that we can confidently face whatever comes. True strength can only arise out of the truth.

So too, when we are able to feel sadness, we are also able to feel joy when it shows up, and the gratitude that accompanies it. We cannot deny the emotions that we don't want and expect ourselves to be able to fully experience the emotions that we do want. We do not need to expend so much effort trying to control our lives so that sadness is kept out; such is a task for Sisyphus. What we need is to teach ourselves and our children that when sad things happen, we are sad -- that sadness comes and goes (as does happiness) and that ultimately, we can stand like the big oak tree and weather whatever winds pass through us. To be strong is not to outrun sadness, but rather to learn to embrace it when it is here, to take good care of it so that it can heal. This is a warrior's strength, a wise parent's strength. The sadness will pass, as all emotions do, but we will remain, stronger and more solid in our ability to
live -- and love -- with what is.

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