By Hannah Edwards
Sometimes we go through life and realize our lives can easily be summarized with a well-known song. We always hope it’s a happy song; perhaps of enjoying life like the Owl City song “Good Time”, a fun nonsense tune with a catchy beat. Or maybe we hope to live out a love song where a companion becomes a spouse. Sadly, we can often relate to the songs about relationships dissolving like in the Ghost Stories album by Coldplay.
And sometimes, the best-fitting song might be one about refusing to have relationships at all. Wait, some people live like that? Yes, some people do: they have gotten hurt by family members, by friends, by romantic interests, and they conclude that having close relationships with people leaves them vulnerable. They will accept friends and family, but at a distance: once the person has proven trustworthy, the cautious outcast will slowly lower his shield. Until that time, the outcast will act impervious to his lack of close relationships: after all, his life reflects that of a famous Simon and Garfunkel song:
I am a rock,
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries 1
This song, titled “I Am a Rock”, portrays a singer who has been hurt by both platonic and romantic relationships. While growing up, I often puzzled over and made fun of the chorus: you could argue that volcanic islands like those of Hawaii “cry” with their lava, and you could argue that breaking a rock with a pick or hammer would “hurt” it, or perhaps using a Biblical metaphor, if rocks can praise God, surely they can feel pain, too? I also wondered about the line in the song, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me”—did this mean his poetry was so bad that no one dared come near him?
The song begins with the singer noting the cold winter scenery out his window, and his separation from the rest of the world. He mentions that he built a stone fortress to protect himself from love and friendship. Next, he sings of his hurt emotions that he buried and has no inclination to resurrect, for surely “if he never loved he never would have cried.” The singer vows to protect himself from being hurt again, to build safeguards to shield himself from relationships and emotions. This could be the theme song after any bad breakup. The pain of confrontations or rejection is hard to bear, and we don’t tend to like the negative emotions. Our culture wants to focus on the happy emotions while we disdain the negative ones, even though both make up the human experience. We might think it would just be easier all around if we didn’t feel the painful feelings, and if we might distance ourselves from people most likely to hurt us.
Whether I intended it or not, this was the song that best summarized my life. During my childhood, my family moved around a lot, and so I had few friends. During the tumultuous teenage years, I knew rejection from peers and crushes. During my twenties, family members and love interests disowned me. I confess I have struggled with depression, perhaps as a result of my past. As I rode on the roller coaster of life, my thoughts have often drifted to these questions: “What if I don’t feel emotion? What if my intellect ruled my mind, and I could reason through any hurt?” Contemplating this philosophy, little by little I implemented tricks to curb my negative emotions.
One Bible verse that might be familiar to you is 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2
Looking at the context of the verse, it seems like solid theology. It says pointless arguments are, ahem, pointless. It also says to practice self-control with our thinking, with Jesus as the Lord of our thoughts. This seems reasonable. In my search for dictatorship of emotions, however, I removed the part “take captive every thought” from its context. Thinking I was only acting biblically, I used this segment to justify my capturing every thought, every wish, and every hope captive to the obedience of me. I would monitor every emotion and every incident that made me feel emotion and remove it.
The first practical application was preventing myself from being disappointed, because that is a painful emotion. How to do this? Simple: don’t hope for something. If you never hope for something to happen, then you are never disappointed. This worked really well, perhaps too well: I remember planning for my mission trip to Japan in March, well in advance of the start of the trip in July. Even though I raised support for the month-long venture, even though the church bake sale was a success, even though the trip was all planned out, even after the plane ticket was purchased, I was unable to feel excited about the trip. So what if it was a month away, maybe a week away, or even a couple of days away, the trip still might not happen: something might come up and it won’t become reality. It wasn’t until I packed my luggage when I actually felt excited about going to Japan.
The second, and perhaps most important, was my avoidance of things or events that made me long for relationships. I mainly used this in regards to romantic relationships, but sometimes also in regards to church family events that made me jealous of happy families. An example of avoiding romantic emptiness was avoiding a semi-formal dinner hosted by a college church: the girls would be served by nicely dressed young men. My female friends were excited and planned how they would dress for the occasion. I considered the event, and finally declined to attend. I told my friends, “I feel convicted against going, because I might be discontent being single. I might be tempted to try to win over the young men.” This seemed true enough: I thought I was obeying God’s will. He doesn’t want us to be discontent with our lot in life, right? If I was still single, it was because he wanted me to be single for that time, and I was doing myself a favor by accepting this role.
With my emotions locked in the dungeon and the key hidden, I convinced myself I finally had my heart under control: I did not give easy access to it. I was fully covered in armor with few weak cracks. This was what I dreamed of, and finally obtained in my callous soul. I would never long for deep relationships again.
Imagine my surprise when I read books by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. They are most famous for the book Boundaries, and while that book deals with putting distance between people, they also write books about bringing people closer together. Their books startled me with this concept: God uses people to reach us and heal us.
God is on a different level than sinful, crooked people: how can he use imperfect beings to express his perfect love? Further reading and investigation brought another mind-boggling concept: if we are made in his image, that includes the emotional package we contain—the ability to feel joy, grief, anger, etc. God feels the positive and the negative emotions, and so do we. We are not only to feel the “good” emotions, but also the “bad” emotions.
I confess I struggled with these concepts. Accepting these concepts would mean that perhaps I wasn’t obeying God by becoming a rock, but that I was acting for my own self-preservation. I also struggled because accepting these concepts as truths would mean I was made to feel the rainbow of emotions, and I was denying myself this attribute. I was in the wrong.
My second concern, if I was to feel these emotions, is that they leave me vulnerable. I hate feeling vulnerable. The problem with showing your weakness is that anybody can poke at it. I also have wrestled with God many a time about my longing for that Someone Special: it’s a painful feeling to deeply want something in your life, and feel like you have no control to make it happen. In this department, I feel like I have lost out on the lottery of life: everyone else might have meaningful romantic relationships, but not me. Chance never favored me.
Only recently have I prayed this note of surrender: “Lord, I will trust you with my emotions. I now believe that you created feelings, and I let you be the steward of them.”
Perhaps now, instead of reflecting a Simon and Garfunkel song, my life is closer to that of a song by The Oh Hellos:
Nothing lasts forever
Some things aren’t meant to be
But you’ll never find the answers
Until you set your old heart free
Until you set your old heart free 3
1. Simon and Garfunkel. “I Am a Rock.” The Best of Simon and Garfunkel, 1966.
2. New International Version. Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+10%3A5&version=NIV
3. The Oh Hellos. “Hello My Old Heart.” The Oh Hellos EP, 2011.