Rick Belden isn’t scared of the feeling of pain. He’s just scared he’ll actually have to express it.
The subject of my poem “falling through” is grief, or more to the point, my fear of feeling and expressing my grief. Actually, fear is much too mild a word for what I feel when I get close to my grief, sadness, and pain. A far more accurate word would be terror.
The source of this terror is not a mystery. I clearly remember the words I heard countless times as a child: Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. This was not an idle threat, as I had the great misfortune to discover many times when I was unable to “control myself” in time to avoid the consequences of my own tears. Crying only brought more pain. Tears only meant more tears. Any open expression of grief, sadness, and pain was a potential threat to my very existence, and over time I learned to hold those feelings tight, deep inside myself, to survive.
This conditioning against explicit expressions of grief and sadness didn’t end with home and family. It continued in school, with teachers and coaches, on the playground, and with friends. Like every other boy, I knew that crying was the worst sin I could commit in public. On those few occasions when I was unable to avoid doing it, the shame, the isolation, and the horror I felt were beyond words.
By the time I was into my teens, I pretty much had the crying thing well under control. It just didn’t happen anymore, not around others and not when I was alone either. But I still had one more defining experience ahead of me.
When I was almost 23, I was going through a very long and difficult breakup with my first girlfriend. We’d moved across the country together when I was 19, from New York to Texas, and lived together for several years, but now we were each living in our own places for the first time, and I was finding it very difficult.
One evening she came over to visit, and as we were talking, I began to cry. I’d never cried in front of her before, not even when she’d cheated on me, but this time I simply couldn’t help myself. I missed her, I was struggling with school and finances, and I was just so damn lonely. Her response was immediate: “If you don’t stop crying, I’m leaving.” The last thing I wanted in that moment was to be left all alone, so I buttoned right up. And I stayed buttoned up for years afterward.
Those were the lessons I learned about feeling and expressing grief and sadness. I learned that crying brings pain, punishment, violence, shame, rejection, isolation, and abandonment. I learned that crying only makes things worse. I learned to fear my own grief. I learned that tears can be like death.
Many years of hard personal work have shown me that allowing myself to feel and express my sadness and grief is a healthy and necessary part of being fully human. It is liberating. It’s completely natural. It’s cleansing. It brings peace and perspective. It is a source of great strength, an answer and an antidote to anger, and a door to forgiveness.
I’ve cried, wept, sobbed, moaned, and howled through tears many, many times, and it hasn’t killed me yet. To the contrary, I always feel much better, much freer, and much more present with myself afterward. And yet that deep conditioning I described still holds some sway over me. I’m still afraid to cry.
Sometimes that fear stops me and sometimes it doesn’t. As expressed in “falling through”, the key to accessing my grief and sadness, to moving it up and out, is always right here with me in my body. The challenge is to feel the energy below the surface and let it rise even as I am feeling my fear. Maybe someday my tears can come without having to struggle through all that fear. That is my hope.
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