I grew up country, in the hills of Arkansas to be exact. This is a fact most people might not notice about me at first. At some point I laid down my thick southern drawl; but I still wear the boots, get my hands greasy under the hood of a car, use duct tape to fix nearly everything, smoke meat, and stay outside as much as possible.
There is so much about growing up country which I’m grateful for. As a kid I could walk behind our house to fish, shoot snakes, work on broken down cars, and have bonfires – just to name a few privileges. I learned at an early age how to be self-sufficient, and when times get hard I still hear Hank Williams Jr. singing ‘A country boy can survive.’
On the one hand I love that I learned to survive. I can cook, clean, fix my own cars, repair my house, and grow or hunt my own food. It’s a good thing to survive, but is it enough? After a few years of marriage, work and parenting I figured the answer is no, survival is not enough in every area of life. I needed something more, but I had no idea where to find it.
When it comes to emotion, survival is not enough. To be perfectly honest, survival is what leads us into addiction, affairs, overwork or overplay (to name a few). I learned many ways to survive painful emotions. I could numb how I felt through some substance or behavior. I could also detach from my feelings, stuffing them down until I became depressed (think of depression as depressed emotion). I also channeled my painful emotions of hurt, sorrow and confusion through the safer emotion of anger or rage (at least, safer for me). When we detach, numb or depress our emotions we survive, but that’s it, we’re unable to grow and we often stay stuck.
Yet, we so often accept emotional survival because the perceived alternative is emotional wounding. When I didn’t know how to process and sit with the painful emotions of deep rejection or sorrow, I preferred numbing them to being overwhelmed or overtaken by them.
The question then is ‘How do I move from emotional survival and into growth?’ For me, it involved getting connected to a group of guys who were for the most part safe. When I say safe I mean that they were honest, communicative and working on their own stuff. They weren’t manipulative, wearing masks or hiding. When I got in this kind of environment I was finally able to put down the tools of survival I had been using since childhood, and begin to replace them with new tools – such as journaling, honest revealing, trusting and receiving feedback, and living without a mask. Nowadays, when painful emotions hit – such as rejection, fear, sorrow or confusion –rather than detaching through overworking, numbing through alcohol, or avoiding through anger, I can turn to my journal to sort out the chaos inside me and then take it to a trusted friend to reveal it. It is in this revealing to another that I experience true connection.
This new growth has changed me from the inside out. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife. When I moved from ‘just surviving’ and into emotional growth I was able to finally be present at home with my wife and kids. I moved into the possibility of intimate relating with others.
To add to Hank Jr.’s words, not only can I ‘plow a field all day long, or ‘catch catfish from dusk til dawn’, but I can also sit with my emotional pain, heal from it and grow into an emotionally mature man.
If this is your struggle as well, ask yourself this question: “Where am I?” Another way to ask that is, “Where is my heart?” If you answer with ‘I don’t know’, or aren’t satisfied with your answer, seek out someone who has walked this path before and can serve as your guide for seeking out and discovering your heart.
“Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero
“Changes that Heal” by Henry Cloud
“The Way of the Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge