Since feeling is first
Some weeks ago, at dinner with my friend Hal, he said he had been feeling emotional.
“Which one?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“You know—happy? Sad? Pissed off?
“I don’t know—emotional,” he said.
Then we changed the subject.
As North American white guys, we tend to avoid direct expression of feeling in day-to-day conversation.
Unless, of course, the subject is hockey.
And yet, my stiff upper lip has been known to quiver. I have the kind of face that registers everything—worry, delight, perplexity, and suspicion.
I am terrible at poker.
I’ve had to learn about feelings—the hard way, by being tyrannized by them. Had I been born in southern Italy, I’d have had no problem. Or so I imagine. But I was raised in St. Louis, whose dominant culture was Anglo and Teutonic, despite the French name.
At sixteen, I began to suspect that feeling was not just the root of the problem but the problem itself. My first therapist was a psychiatrist, a bona fide Freudian analyst of the Viennese School. When he’d ask how I was, I’d say “anxious.” I didn’t have a very wide emotional vocabulary in those days, and I don’t recall Herr Doktor as being much help.
Twenty years and four therapists later, I heard myself say that I’d know when I was ready to stop therapy when I no longer had any feelings.
Then I laughed. So did my therapist. It was our next to last session.
What had brought me to that fourth and final therapist was grief. When my father died, I was overwhelmed, nearly paralyzed. My father and I were not close. It didn’t make any sense. It was wholly irrational. And yet, as I came to see, grief had its own kind of logic. My friend, the poet Anne Rubicam Witten, pointed me to Gilgamesh, Innana, Persephone, and Orpheus—stories about the decent to the Underworld. Stories that acted as a map in this new territory of grieving.
Therapists could only take me so far. For the rest, I needed the poets.
Robert Bly used to talk about the grief at the core of the male psyche. He spoke about it as an initiation, the “time of ashes,” essential to the evolution of a man’s mind and heart and soul.
Not that grief is particular to men. My friend Monica insists that at the heart of every silence lies some form of grief.
What Hal chose not to talk about that evening at dinner was his mother’s death and the fact that he’d recently declared bankruptcy.
What then is the language of feeling? Not just one, surely. Proclamations of love. Lamentation. Sidelong comments. Innuendo. Carping. Sarcasm. Body language. A glance. Those looks.
I often work with couples who want more intimacy, better communication, and less fighting. Much of my work involves training them to become exquisitely aware of what lives in the space between them. Feelings. As they become aware of the impact of what they say and do, they have more choice about how they speak and act in order to keep the relationship space clear.
When I began with one couple, the atmosphere between them was so charged that even an intended compliment could start a fight. Gradually, as they became more aware of how they were interacting and what feelings they were generating, they began trying new ways of communicating—at different times, with clearer intentions, using more neutral language. Then they noticed the impact on their children and how they were treating each other. All this took slowing down and paying attention. Giving themselves time to feel.
Another couple, men who’ve been partners for eight years, wanted to stop avoiding topics they simply couldn’t discuss. So we began with what they could discuss, always pointing to the space between them and what was there. That they loved each other was clear. That the relationship was skilled at any number of tasks was also clear. And so we built on that. Some weeks later during a session, one acknowledged the other, and he began to tear up. A hard place for men, even gay men. He made a joke and looked away. I asked them to pause and invited them to sit with what was happening. In the ensuing silence, they held each other’s gaze, tears in their eyes. This was the intimacy they were seeking to reclaim. A sweet, tender, dangerous vulnerability. And they’d learned to create the safety to experience it.
And what of our relationship to ourselves, the time we give to our own feelings?
All week, I have been busy coaching couples, setting up individual calls with my certification students in Europe, interviewing and assessing new clients. Relationship work. Then all of a sudden I am exhausted. I have stepped over my own feelings of admiration, frustration, impatience, love, envy, and longing.
They clamour for my attention.
So I close the computer, lie down and let everything surface.
After a while, I take my notebook and pen and give myself a half hour to listen and write down what I need to let myself know.
The poem from which I borrow my title is, after all, a love poem by e.e. cummings.
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
It’s the thing that flutters up behind the eyes, a movement in the heart before language.
And then … the words to say it.