Serenity? Sorry. Freedom Is Not an Escape
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Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
— Lao Tzu
I’ll never forget the way her frown pinched her forehead after I read my essay aloud.
I’d written about bashing a chair into bits with a baseball bat. Grunts and moans and yelling jumped off the page and shattered the smooth perfection of the ever-so-proper living room where our writing group sat on the floor among tasteful designer pillows.
I finished reading and I was at peace from giving verbal form to the consuming rage that had been roiling in my chest for months.
She, on the other hand, was anything but peaceful. Her jaw clenched and unclenched. That frown nearly cleaved her forehead in two.
Finally she loosened her jaw enough to say, “Your anger is going to make you sick.”
I almost laughed out loud.
My 39-year-old husband had suddenly died 18 months earlier, leaving me in stunned shock for over a year. Around the one-year mark, the numbness began to wear off and feelings poured through me. Relentlessly.
Even though sadness, loneliness, and despair rolled in so intensely that I thought I might drown, I felt immense relief at being able to finally feel again.
I had thought I was permanently numbed by trauma and grief. Anguish racing through my veins signaled that I was still alive.
My therapist was the only one who understood my gratitude for the wretched feelings. Despair and sorrow fit my circumstances perfectly, and finding ways to express those emotions moved them through me and cleansed my wounded soul.
So when anger showed up around 13 months in, I felt stirred up but not afraid.
I raged at the universe for taking away my husband and best friend, for leaving my toddler son fatherless.
Nothing in me blamed anyone or anything for my husband’s death. Yet my roaring protest at the injustice of my loss connected me to a core of universal human suffering that broke me open to care — more deeply than I ever knew I could — for all other suffering people.
My anger fit my circumstances, allowed me to feel whole, and taught me compassion.
It did not, as it turns out, make me sick.
Today, 28 years after my rage period, I’m crying again as I write this, as I remember the fierceness with which I connected with all humans in the heart of the darkness of my suffering.
That dark center of love and connection through despair, loneliness, and rage is the source of the calling that has led me to help others with grief and trauma for two decades.
My fellow writing group member whose jaw had clenched at the fact of my grief-stricken rage held a view of calmness and serenity that’s common among people in our culture. This quote from a serenity-is-good-and-the-goal-of-all-life website sums up this viewpoint:
“Serenity is a feeling of being totally at peace, calm and untroubled. It is a state of mind that everybody wishes to seek as it is a stress-free and beautifully calm state of mind. Serenity is when you’re truly at peace with yourself and everything around you and you radiate nothing but positive vibes.”
Paradoxically, it’s this belief in the need for a constant stress-free state of mind that’s one of the things that can cause emotions to negatively affect us.
That’s right — FEAR of painful emotions leads us to be ashamed of and afraid of them, so we push them into the background where they fester and become distorted and toxic.
My fellow writing group member took me out for coffee after the fateful reading of my anger essay and asked me, “Why are you so attached to your anger?”
I explained to her in four different ways that I was not in any way attached to my anger.
My anger, was simply an enormous emotion that arose in me as a fitting and healthy part of my grief. Once I discovered it, I allowed it to flow through me without fear, and found healthy ways to express it. There was indeed a river of anger that was torrential and pouring through me for a long time. But with support from a stalwart person who held my hand, I was simply a channel for expression.
My “friend” escalated her lecture and announced that anger was toxic and my attachment to it was unhealthy. She told me that serenity would arrive when I released my anger.
Yet her pressured voice, ongoing frowny face, and clenched jaw belied the truth she couldn’t let herself know:
Her demand that I find my way to a completely stress-free state of being that exuded constant positive vibes revealed herdeep attachment to an unreal way of living. Her off-base view of serenity led her to fear my pain and anger, which caused her to be tense, clenched, hard.
I didn’t articulate my fleeting thought that she was giving herself high blood pressure by being so attached to being free of stress.
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace within the storm. — Anonymous
Our culture so misunderstands what serenity actually is. Countless mindfulness and spiritual practices attempt to get rid of painful emotions like anger and despair and sorrow. This attitude is based on that idea that inner calm means we don’t have to feel distress.
A belief that a feeling is bad and should be eliminated is the ultimate attachment to perfection. Attachment to a lack of stress. Attachment to an entitlement to all-comfortable-feelings-all-the-time.
But my experience with my own grief — with all its permutations of sadness, despair, rage, even numbness; my trauma training; and my experience with clients have all led me to understand that serenity is indeed peace withinthe storms of life, not an escape from them.
When my therapist helped me to see that my emotions, no matter how painful, were simply experiences that were flowing through me to give me information and to heal me, I could feel them with all of their intensity in my body and my heart, and trust that life was unfolding as it should.
The capacity and support to feel it ALL, to not cut myself off from any of life’s experiences is true serenity. True “nonattachment.” True freedom to be fully alive.
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. — Joseph Campbell
When I have permission to view my emotions as sources of information and healing, they don’t become distorted, rigidified, acted out, and therefore “toxic.” It’s blocked and misshapen emotion that hurts us and the people around us.
Having the courage and support to allow and not block my feelings, to be at peace with even enormous inner upheaval leaves me supple, flexible, not clenched. Which leads me to an emotion that’s beyond a trite sense of happiness: Joy.
The joy of feeling it all, the joy of being connected to all humans via shared vulnerability to suffering. The joy of true freedom, no matter how roiled my insides are.
Serenity is the freedom to be fully human. Not an escape from humanity.
I hope you can find at least one person who can support you in exploring your most chaotic feelings so that you can find your way to the freedom of listening to your emotions for information and allowing them to flow. Please know that it’s not easy and it takes practice and help to allow enormous emotions to flow through you and find ways to express them instead of acting them out.
Having a framework for understanding why the emotions exist and what they’re for is a cornerstone of your support system. Understanding that ridding yourself of painful emotion is not the goal, and that serenity is the acceptance of your feelings no matter how messy they are is a huge part of that framework.
Tell me if this reframing of the idea of serenity gives you some freedom (or not)…
P. S. I’ll write more details in a future post about the differences between core, flowing emotion and blocked, hurtful emotion. That information will also contribute to your freedom.