It’s no secret that we are emotional beings. We experience our world—we connect with and participate in the life around us—by feeling it. When we see a beautiful sunset, for example, we don’t just look at it with our eyes and think, intellectually, oh wow that’s really pretty. We feel it in our bodies as the sight triggers a sense of awe deep within us. Physiologically, when we’re feeling awe or great appreciation for something, our heart rate changes, our respirations slow, our face lights up—our eyebrows go up and our eyes open wide to take in more of the sight—and there is some evidence that awe may even decrease inflammation in our bodies.
We don’t just see something awesome. We feel it too.
The same is true for the more difficult experiences we meet in life as well…loss, heartache, struggle, illness, crisis. We may lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, worrying about what’s to come, but the effects of the stress aren’t only in our minds. Our bodies feel all the strain of those taxing and sometimes toxic emotions—stress elevates our heart rate and quickens our breathing (we also tend to breath shallowly, in the top part of our lungs, when we’re anxious or grieving). Our skin may feel clammy, our muscles and joints tight and achy, our necks and backs stiff.
The title for our message today comes from a bit of a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet who lived in the early 1900s. His poignant and I think truthful words:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
Grief work is a big part of what I do every day as a hospice chaplain, and the early days and weeks of loss—and everyone who has lost someone dear recognizes this—is often an exhausting rollercoaster of emotion. There are up moments when we wonder how in the world we could possibly be smiling; and there are low moments, when we barely have the energy to get out of bed. And there are feelings—dozens of feelings, maybe hundreds–at every point in-between.
People often say that grief is exhausting and overwhelming, and it can feel chaotic and out of control for just that reason—the ever-changing nature of all the feelings we endure. We may be feeling reasonably fine one moment and the very next—after a familiar song on the radio or a whiff of our loved one’s perfume—we’re reduced to tears in the checkout aisle. The rollercoaster of emotion makes people, especially those early in the grief process, feel like they can’t trust themselves to go out in public, because they never know when they’ll be hit by the next wave of grief.
A dozen years ago, scientists wanted to get a realistic idea of how often we experience emotion during the average day, and so they designed a research project toward that end. The numbers might surprise you. They found that there was a slight difference between men and women—with women reporting slightly more emotion during the day, which might not be a big surprise to those of us who have known men and women. To collect the information, they gave study participants diaries and pagers and then signaled them seven different times each day to choose what they were feeling: happiness, anger, anxiety/fear, sadness, surprise, disgust or ‘‘no emotion’’ at that particular moment (only one emotion could be chosen).
The study showed that women were feeling emotion 40% of the time they were contacted during the day, and men reported feelings about 30% of the time. Happiness was the feeling recorded most often, mentioned at least daily by 63% of study participants. On the negative side, 46% of participants reported feeling tense, rushed, or nervous at least once a day, and the most common negative feelings were anger or irritation, sadness, and anxiety. Researchers found, however, that intense negative feelings were very rare and that for most people, irritation, sadness, and anxiousness was either mild or fleeting.
And here’s something else interesting the study found. Even though people reported in the moment—each day—that they were largely feeling happy, researchers found that when they asked people how they felt yesterday, or last week, or a month ago, what they say they felt—and the way they remember it—is more negative than positive. This is called a “recall bias” and it causes us to often remember things worse than they were. Several things play into this—our emotional state when the memory was made, the amount of attention we were paying to it, and the way in which our brains tend to reconstruct events and experiences in such a way that they fit our other memories and interpretations of events. Our minds want our narrative to be consistent so our story, our life, our identity makes sense, so things get moved around a bit in retrospect. And this shaping influence happens largely outside our conscious awareness. So science tells us that our past may have actually been happier than we remember it today.
The idea that our feelings are so rich and so changeable—which we can see for ourselves, just looking back over our last few days– is also a grace in that we know whatever we are feeling just now—happiness or sadness, irritation or hopefulness—will soon change. Of course we want the good feelings to stay with us and the bad feelings to stay away, but the good news is that no feeling is ever final: If we wait just a few minutes, a new feeling will come along, as changeable as spring weather in Indiana.
What is not changeable in this ever-moving landscape of emotion is the One who sustains us and comforts us and walks alongside us each day. Thank goodness God understands the way our minds are made, the blocks we envision, and the ways we interrupt and sabotage and get in the way of our own happiness. When we remember that God sees what we cannot, when we quiet our minds and instead of reacting to our outward circumstances listen for God’s leading, things change. We feel less caught in the continuing swirl of emotions. And when that helps, we begin to pause and listen as a matter of course, building into our daily lives the pauses we need to let God point us toward a truer and calmer reality.
Our Old Testament reading today is Psalm 121, one of my favorites. It reminds us that even while we experience all the ups and downs of our emotional lives, we can remember where to place our trust, and our hope, and our confidence.
1I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
No matter how old or young we are, we each have the ability to look back over our lives and see all the hills and valleys God has led us through—the times when we didn’t know what to do and the way suddenly opened; experiences when we felt alone and out of options and just the right person crossed our path at just the right time.
Weathering the ever-changing landscape of our feelings gets easier when we remember that God doesn’t change, God sees the big picture, and God is continually leading us toward peace and goodness and joy. Beneath all our daily feelings—positive and negative—is the constancy of God’s Love, helping us find our way and attending to our needs and questions, struggles and hopes. When God is leading, everything we experience—all of it–offers us something that will ultimately bless us. I like the way Rumi put this in his poem, The Guest House:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
That last bit may seem hard to do—being grateful for whatever comes, even the hard things—but we Friends already have a context for this in our own tradition. We know that life with God brings comfort and peace and security, but it also involves real, honest work with ourselves that is sometimes messy and sometimes painful. This kind of inner work—especially the part that requires us to accept and admit to flaws we’d rather overlook—is often uncomfortable, requiring that we trust and honor God’s leading more than our own comfort. We need to let God do the shaping of our story so we learn how to live with more love and truth each day. This is how George Fox put it in a letter to the Friends of his day:
Mind the light of God in your consciences,
which will show you all deceit;
dwelling in it, guides out of the many things into one spirit,
which cannot lie, nor deceive.
Those who are guided by it, are one.
~ George Fox, 1624-1691
We learn, gradually across the years, thanks to God’s faithful care and lots of self-honesty, that God’s love—not our own efforts—is what opens the way for us in life, smoothing the rough places, and making us whole again after times of hardship, failure, and loss.
In our New Testament reading today we heard about how God healed the heartache of the demoralized and scattered disciples and prepared them for their ongoing mission. Not only had Jesus been cruelly taken from them and crucified, but they knew that this happened because one of their own—Judas, a disciple who had been with them from the beginning–had betrayed not only Jesus but each of them as well. They might have been wondering—and rightfully so—whether their work had ended, whether it was all over, whether there was going to be any way to continue what Jesus had started among them.
They gathered in the upper room—Peter, John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James and Simon and Judas the son of James. The women were there too, with Mary, Jesus’ mother and his brothers. They all joined together in prayer.
Soon Peter felt inspired to speak and he stood up—much as we Friends do when we speak out of the silence—and he asked those gathered to remember the scripture and its prophecy concerning the betrayal of Judas. He also reminded them that in the book of Psalms it says that if one deserts his role, as Judas did, another should be appointed to leadership in his place. And so following this inspiration, they nominated two men who had been with them from the beginning and prayed for discernment and clarity, saying
“Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.”
They then cast lots to determine the choice, trusting that whatever the outcome was, God had blessed it. Matthias was the one chosen and he joined the remaining apostles to continue their work in carrying Jesus’ ministry to the world.
By leading those gathered in the upper room that day in prayer, by inspiring Peter to remember the prophecy and speak as he did, by giving them a sense of unity of purpose and nudging them toward wholeness, God showed the disciples that all was not lost; their mission had not failed, and that God was equipping them—the full group of 12 disciples—to continue the work they had begun together. What hope they must have felt. And purpose and peace.
For each of us, too, in our individual lives, God works continually to bring us to a sense of wholeness—wholeness of purpose, of peace, of joy, of fulfillment in faith. We each have a place in God’s heart and a purpose to live out, our part in bringing God’s light to the world. Even though feelings pass through our days like so many clouds in the sky, our constancy is God’s presence and his faithful, never-ending care for us.
As early Friend Edward Burrough wrote in the mid-1600s,
All that dwell in the light, their habitation is in God, and they know a hiding place in the day of storm; and those who dwell in the light, are built upon the rock, and cannot be moved…those who are moved or shaken, go from the light, and so go from their strength, and from the power of God, and lose the peace and the enjoyment of the presence of God.
May we remember—when we’re tossed about by waves of emotion—that no feeling is final, as Rilke said. This is both a hope and a promise. Because the very changeable nature of our feelings points to the constancy of God—always sure, always present, always loving us and leading us toward a hope and future. And that’s a promise that is final—Alpha and Omega—and it will never fade.