One summer in my mid-twenties, I was in Devon as a volunteer assistant at a children's educational outward-bound week. A wise teacher at this event asked me one evening what I did as my vocation. I told him that I was in the final period of my studies to become an architect. He looked at me, in the way wise teachers always do, as though he could see into the depths of my soul, and said, “Why do you want to be an architect? We don't need any more buildings in the Western world.”
This simple comment stole into my mind and like a tiny seed, planted itself into my thoughts. As I stood on the cusp of adulthood, about to leap into the big wide world of jobs, career, earning a salary, being responsible for paying my way, the thought took root. It sprouted and grew, twisting its way around my conscience like a giant beanstalk. The question turned and turned. During the seven years I'd been studying art and architecture, I had never thought to ask myself why. All I knew was that I loved to design and draw and create. I hadn't imagined that some day I would have to justify or prove why I did what I loved to do.
I realised that I could not answer the wise teacher's question and two years later, I left architecture, got a job in a restaurant, and have been wondering ever since what the hell I'm supposed to be doing with my life. The wise teacher? He does not remember what he said to me (I have asked him), yet the simplest of words spoken in a moment of unconsciousness, in spite of good intentions, can kill the dreams of the very people we profess to care about.
Words hold an infinite power to create and shape our reality. They are a magical river upon which flows stories of amazing worlds, full of wonder and riches, of love and adventure, of heroines and mythical feats. They are also the reactionary instinct to try and understand a world where we are bound together in the most subtle ways, yet without an awareness to comprehend the consequences of our utterances.
Humans do not begin life with words. Babies and toddlers absorb the world via their senses, emotions and feelings, and communicate their needs primarily through crying. It is only when they reach the Age of Reason, around 7–9 years old, that words gradually take over as the predominant mode of engagement and understanding.
By the time we reach adulthood, words, combined with the tonality of delivery and reception, form the basis of all the stories we hold in our minds about who we think we are and what we think we are capable of doing. We call them “beliefs” and “values” as a way to determine our unique identity and place in the world, but most of our beliefs and values are in fact adopted from outside ourselves, and not by choice (from parents, teachers, family, friends, environment, religion, culture, education, etc.). Just think about all the threads of your life experience that “run in the family”!
The conversation with my wise teacher happened over twenty years ago, decades through which I've struggled with the guilt and regret of having given up what I loved. After years of half-baked attempts to write fiction and paint, only now, in my forties do I genuinely feel that my confidence has started to shift. I am aware that his comment was not the only story of lack of self-worth that I adopted about my relationship with Art, but I now also understand that “un-ravelling” the words I heard, or switching my belief to a positive affirmation, is not enough to release the force of the emotions that have become entwined with the belief.
Emotions, such as guilt and regret, do not exist in the realm of “reason”. They cannot just be talked away. We are often told (very reason-ably) that we should not be controlled by, or give in to, our emotions and feelings. The reality of our experience, however, is a visceral pain, deep in the body-psyche, as physical and real as being cut by a knife. And to truly release and heal this pain, it is necessary to express it via the medium through which emotions communicate; the sound of tears.
Just as babies really go for it when they cry, with no rhyme or reason, and regardless whether they are tired, hungry, scared, or lonely, we must bypass the critical, self-effacing and blame-filled mind and just cry.
When my niece was 10 years old, she would cry spontaneously, simply because she felt sad. I had no thought to convince her to stop. So why not have the same compassion when we are adults? It is a tragedy that we are educated from childhood to constantly push down our expression of emotional pain, usually in order to avoid some nonsensical fear of embarrassment (especially in public). No wonder we then grow up emotionally repressed, unable to express and release our own pain constructively. We end up angry and lost in a mind that obsesses and regurgitates stories from the past, instead of simply letting ourselves be open to releasing the present experience. We are so fucking reason-able that we have even forgotten how to cry. Really cry! To allow our emotions to rise to the surface and burst forth like a dam, years and years of uncried tears, for no reason. To feel the depth of our vulnerability, our human frailty, our sensitivity, and the emotion we most avoid, our fear of death. To surrender completely and cry it out for as long as it takes, until we get beyond the pain and realise our incredible capacity to heal.