For years, I had a recurring dream that Tommy Smothers was my uncle (here’s a link if you’re too young to recall the Smothers Brothers). Don’t ask me why my dream consciousness threw Tommy Smothers into the archetypal role of beloved-but-distant uncle in a repetitious drama of melancholy and regret. It just did.
Those dreams felt so real, though, that I would wake up distinctly sad, yet warmly affectionate toward a complete stranger – one whose schlocky humor I had out-groaned many years earlier.
One night a few years ago, friends and I had tickets to see a band at a nearby casino. As we made our way past game rooms, dining rooms, and souvenir shops to find the concert venue, I happened to spy none other than Tommy Smothers! Unbeknownst to me, he was also performing at the casino. Such was the power of our dream connection (on my end at least), that I was actually walking toward him, ready to greet him with a welcoming hug before I came to my senses.
Our eyes met briefly, just before I pretended that it had been my intention all along to duck into the restroom just behind where he stood. His held a certain wariness that I’ve sometimes seen when in proximity to celebrities – an inner bracing against the force of fans who presume too much. That look, a perfect mixture of wary and weary, cut straight to my heart. Poor uncle Tommy, I thought.
I share this story as an illustration: what we feel is not always a reliable basis for action.
This is not to say that emotions should be discounted. Only that, sometimes, they need to be examined before they are used to guide decisions or choices. It isn’t really a problem that I feel an inexplicable tenderness toward Tommy Smothers, unless I behave as if that dream-generated emotion is a sound basis on which to act.
There are many examples, most of them less absurd, that illustrate this point. From the seemingly insignificant – transient emotions like anger toward other drivers or disappointment over a Rose Bowl loss (sorry, I’m a Hawkeye and it is still fresh) — to bigger, more impactful emotional situations, there are many times when a mature response calls us to do more than feel our emotions. Sometimes we need to examine what we’re feeling with a critical eye. We need to ask ourselves “What is the truth behind what I’m feeling?”
In an age when we are called to live with passion, to trust our guts, to express rather than swallow our emotions, it is out of fashion to call for emotional restraint. Isn’t that the big defense used for fear- and hate- mongers like Donald Trump? That he is just “saying what we’re all feeling”? I suggest that we are confusing living and acting from our truth with living and acting from our momentary feelings. Distinguishing between the two requires reflection and a willingness to honestly examine our own choices – two other things that, coincidentally, seem to be out of fashion right now.
Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, encapsulates this powerfully:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Our emotions are powerful stimuli. I am not advocating that we attempt to ignore them, or that we not consider them when making decisions and choices. I am, however, advocating for that space to which Frankl refers. Advocating that we see the space, and make use of it to center ourselves before choosing our responses.
It was easy for me to choose not to approach Tommy Smothers at the casino. It is harder for me to choose to behave in a hopeful and proactive manner when I am feeling anxiety about the future. It is harder for me to hold back from lashing out when a friend has hurt me. It is very hard to confront my feelings of fear when I am in unfamiliar surroundings. I don’t judge myself for having those emotions. I have them, and I need to allow myself to feel them. But I also need to recognize that there is a space between them and my choices – and in that space, lies my opportunity to remain centered in my core self, my core values.