Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sodas and Care of the Soul

In 1974, at about noon on every weekday, a science experiment took place behind the Austin Elementary School in Pecos, Texas. My three fourth-grade friends-- Darren, Rodney, and Sanford--would join me at the beginning of the lunch break. Each of us brought our own raw material for the experiment: a soft drink.

Our goal was simple. We sought to determine how high the liquid in a can of soda would shoot into the air after it had been tossed against a wall, rolled down the steps, and kicked a few times. We found our answer one day. Darren opened his can after the aforementioned “preparation” and we watched in amazement as Coke shot all the way to the roof of the two-story building. It was the greatest thing I had witnessed in nine years of life.

If only other explosions were as benign as those created by curious children.

Human beings spend a fair amount of time being tossed around by life. Sometimes cruel and abusive adults are the source of the painful buffeting we experience in childhood. At other times societal biases cause us to feel like we are being kicked down the stairs. And then there are the random hardships like bad economies, illnesses, and the loss of loved ones. Any of these can cause us to go off unexpectedly when the lid to our emotions develops a crack.

Anger, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the things that come rushing out of us when someone or something cracks open an intense wound that has been festering for a long time--sometimes for years or decades.

In my counseling practice many of my clients seek me out after one of these emotional explosions, or to try and prevent one from happening. Some people are surprised by the intensity of their feelings over events from far in their past, events that they may have even forgotten until something jolts them into a painful memory.

But it makes sense if you think about it. Suppressing a painful feeling or experience doesn’t eliminate it. It simply allows for time and events to jostle that hurt until the internal combustion creates a reaction. Often we are shocked by just how strong that reaction can be.

It is important to remember that eruptions of anger, anxiety, grief, depression or other unpleasant feelings are not the central problem. In fact, these expressions are reminders that there is a bigger issue going on that we have ignored or overlooked. Pain can be a powerful teacher if we are willing to search out its true lesson.

Still, none of us want to be ruled by a raging temper or uncontrolled anxiety. So how do we prevent such powerful feelings from affecting our ability to live well and relate to the others in a healthy fashion?

First, we have to talk. Strong emotional reactions can make us feel ashamed and vulnerable. In such a state we tend to retreat into silence. The most important gift we can give to ourselves in those moments is the permission to talk to someone we trust. Simple conversation allows the internal pressure to be released gradually in a way that reduces the chance of a sudden blast.

Second, we should seek community. Isolation is the ally of depression and deceives us into thinking that the best place for us in our misery is separated from others. Yet, it is through connection to people that we care about, and who care about us, that we discover the tonic of love, laughter, and a lighter heart.

Third, we need to nurture our souls/psyche. For some of us this means engaging in religious or spiritual practices that bring us peace and purpose. For others it might mean spending time in nature so that we feel more alive. The recipe is different for each of us, but the result is similar. We begin to feel like ourselves again and more in tune with our inner truth.

A can of soda does not shoot in the air every time you open it. Someone has to shake it first; or in the case of little boys, kick it, throw it and turn it into a rocket launcher. Once that has happened, though, you have two choices. You can open it quickly and watch it head for the roof, or you can do it carefully in a way that defuses its power. I highly recommend the latter approach if you want anything left in the can to drink.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology