Whoever humbles himself
like this little child
is the greatest in
the kingdom of heaven.
After I was diagnosed with cancer I felt everything. I felt fear. I felt shock. I felt grief. I felt shame. I felt numbness. I felt resentment. I felt jealousy. I felt anger. I felt gratitude. I felt peace. These feelings seemed to come and go of their own volition.
Sometimes the feelings were intense. Sometimes they were mild. Sometimes they stacked up on top of each other. Sometimes they came in confusing combinations—like gratitude and grief at the same time.
There were times when I had the thought: “I am not doing this very well.” I think this idea came when I was caught up in a feeling that I did not like. Or when I felt ashamed of a particular emotional response. I knew that my work was to stay honest about all of these feelings—and to find a way to share them with God and with a few trusted friends.
I say this was my work because it did not necessarily come naturally or easily to me. I resisted many of these feelings as they came unbidden into my heart and mind. My work, therefore, was to keep asking God for gifts of humility and courage to acknowledge whatever I was feeling.
Sometimes I found it helpful to view my feelings as visitors who were knocking at my heart’s door. They came asking to be acknowledged and to be given a voice. They needed to find expression and to be embraced. When I was able to invite them in and listen to them they enriched my life, offered me clarity, brought me wisdom, and showed me where I needed correction.
As I prayed for the humility and courage to acknowledge my feelings and invited them in as valued visitors, I found myself expressing a wide range of emotions. There were times when I wept. Times when I wrote in my prayer journal about my fear or shame. Times when I confessed my resentments and jealousies. Times when I expressed my gratitude for the gifts I was receiving. And times when I rested in the surprising gifts of peace that came as part of the process.
One of the things that we tend to dislike about our feelings is that they are not always rational. We feel things that don’t make logical sense to us. For example, my feelings of jealousy towards people who were experiencing good health—whose lives were not suddenly disrupted and out of their control—this jealousy certainly felt irrational to me. Similarly, my feelings of fear seemed irrational. The type of cancer I had was 100% treatable. It was even sometimes called a “pre-cancerous condition.” But our feelings do not go away simply because we try to dismiss them as irrational. On the contrary, the more we resist them because we don’t want to feel them, the more they seem to lay claim on our attention and our limited energy.
The danger is that our dislike of the irrational nature of many of our feelings can lead us to ignore or deny them. This can be very problematic. When we ignore or deny our feelings we cannot learn from them. Pushing our feelings away robs us of important opportunities to learn about ourselves, to seek support and to make needed changes. Feelings may not be rational but they have a logic of their own if we are willing to listen to them and explore them.
We do well to become like little children when it comes to our feelings. The goal is not to become children who are out of control with their feelings, but children who know it is okay to simply feel what they feel and to find ways to talk about those feelings. Such children are able to be vulnerable with others. They are able to get the help and support they need.
Recently our grandson started preschool. He is a very social child, so mostly he loves preschool. With one exception. For the first two weeks he cried every time he had to go outside for recess. He told us that he was afraid that he would be left alone on the playground when every one else went back inside.
While I was talking with him about this fear one day, I started to say what probably several other adults had already said to him. I started to say, “You know, your teacher won’t leave you out on the playground.” But as soon as I started to say this he stopped me. “Don’t say those words!” he interjected. So I stopped and started over. “I am sorry you are feeling afraid each day on the playground,” I said. “Thanks,” he responded quietly.
This was a helpful reminder. When we are experiencing uncomfortable feelings, we do not need or want to be reminded that our feelings are irrational. We do not need to be talked out of them. What we do need is empathy, support and care.
Empathy with my grandson’s fear opened up additional conversations. We were able to talk together about what might help him feel less afraid. Talking more about his fears, thinking of resources and strategies available to him, and acknowledging his courage seemed to calm his fears and eventually recess became the enjoyable time it was meant to be.
And so it was for me. When I felt the build up of grief and I allowed myself to cry with my husband, I was able to experience the amazing gift of comfort. I was always soothed and strengthened by this gift. And I was able to know deeply that there was nothing in this life or in death that we cannot face when we are supported, loved and comforted.
When I paid attention to my jealousy and took inventory of my resentments, I was able to face the dark thoughts inside me. The pride, the self-serving, the lack of trust, the self deceit all came forward for me to see and acknowledge. Facing and confessing these dark thoughts and feelings to God and a few others, helped me to experience the sweet breath of God’s grace flowing into me, loving me and releasing me.
When I felt afraid and ran like a little child to God’s loving arms, I was able to feel the compassion and empathy of God. I was able to remember that I was not alone. I was able to know again that God shepherds me, guides me, helps me. I was reminded that even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I do not need to be afraid, because God is always with me.
From the gifts of comfort, soothing, strengthening, release, forgiveness, grace, reassurance, compassion—all of which were the result of expressing what I was feeling—came the experience of deep gratitude. And from the gratitude, came moments of a deep, quiet joy.
No matter what the difficulty, our feelings lead us back to our need to become like little children. Humble. Unashamed of needing help and comfort. Capable of weeping. Capable of laughing. Capable of saying, “I am sorry.” Capable of learning. Capable of giving and receiving gifts of love. Capable of joy.
When you don’t know what to do…feel what you feel.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What are some of the feelings you have been experiencing?
2. What feelings do you have about these feelings?
3. What might each of these feelings be “saying” to you?
4. What are you needing to do in response to your feelings?