But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.
I’ve wondered whether to write this. I think Western society tends to err on the side of too much self-disclosure, and personally I’m inclined to be quite happy when people tell me they can’t tell what I’m thinking. But some recent events (not involving me) have suggested maybe the topic should be discussed, and it feels like the right thing to do. Perhaps I am selfishly seeking for people to understand me better, although I am not writing this as a cry for help (things aren’t too bad at present). Or perhaps this might help some other people: I’ve had these feelings for as long as I can remember, but it is only comparatively recently that I became aware of these issues. Others may be in the same position.
I wrestle with self-hatred. I’ve alluded to this before. It waxes and wanes, and at times can be almost dormant, although it hasn’t been the last couple of years, and it is always there deep down. When dormant, it is little more than a spike in my mind, an occasional inner voice or reflex. At its worst, however, it burns like fire in my veins, so that it is almost – or rather even – physically painful. When it gets inflamed (and a variety of things have been able to do that over the years) it can be debilitating. Even something as simple as looking in the mirror can be a difficult experience, as sometimes I want to punch the person looking back at me (seeing video footage of myself, even at the best of times, has almost triggered nervous breakdowns). At the worst of times, it includes very vivid and detailed suicidal thoughts. These thoughts are not just driven by feelings of despair, though they can be very present, but often also feelings of rage and anger towards myself. I hasten to add, however, that while there have been times in the past when these feelings have come close to overwhelming me that I have not made any attempts, and never plan on doing so. But an accurate description of this phenomenon also includes those thoughts and feelings too.
As mentioned, I’ve wrestled with these feelings of self-hatred for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t aware that that is what I was feeling for many years, even though the worst of it (including the suicidal impulse) has been a recurring experience for over two decades. I’m not sure how I never quite twigged that I hated myself earlier in life: I guess that that for some reason the outbursts of negative feeling and so on all seemed a normal reaction to who I am (and particularly any feelings of personal failure I was experiencing), even when that came out vocally as “I hate me”. Over time, however, and particularly in recent years, I have been able to gain a better understanding of what I’ve been experiencing and some of the things that fuel it. I’ve also gained a better understanding of how it in turn has affected or affects other areas of my life. Awareness really only came from working on other issues and realising something else lay behind it.
There seem to be three principle nexuses (nexii?) for the manifestation of these feelings. The first is a sense of failure. I frequently feel that I have failed God, let down people I care about, or just been a failure in general terms. Sometimes this feeling is a reaction to a specific “failure” (such as not finishing my PhD thesis yet – or the fact that I’m still a “student”), other times it is simply a more pervasive sense. I recognise that at times I have distinctly unrealistic standards here: I recall being asked once (in response to my declaration that I felt I had achieved “nothing”) who I was comparing myself to, and I half-jokingly replied that at my age Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Yet to be honest any comparisons with others tend to be on far simpler grounds of family and job, and I really often just feel that I have accomplished nothing, without any comparisons except to what I feel I could or should have done.
The second nexus is a feeling of being inherently unlovable, about which there’s a whole bunch of insecurities that I will not go into. Perhaps simply because I don’t like me, I don’t understand why anyone else would either. I often feel difficult being in the company of other people (something I can find difficult anyway because of other factors) because I feel they are only putting up with my presence out of charity or kindness, and I don’t want to burden people with my presence (perhaps it doesn’t help that I can’t read body language, though part of me fears that’d simply underline the truth). The emotion of “feeling loved” – whether by humans or by God – does not appear to come to me easily: in fact a few years ago I wondered if I could feel that at all. At that time I discovered I could, and I’ve had a handful of such experiences in my life (a couple involving people, a couple involving God). It can be hard to hold onto memories of such fleeting experiences though. Ultimately I often simply feel that no one could or sometimes even should love me, and sometimes that feeling extends to God himself. And then part of me feels weak for even wanting that love.
A third nexus which I have come to see kicks in occasionally is anger. In the last couple of years I have become aware of a great store of inner anger (and I’m aware of some of the roots of that, which I won’t go into). Over time, I seem to have established various mental banks and earthworks to lock up this anger and prevent that erupting over people as it used to do from time to time. Yet it hasn’t gone away, and it is still there. Part of me is ashamed of that, and considers it another failure. Part of me is perhaps sensitive to things like would-be fascists in our society, because I have a far greater monster locked up inside of me, who sometimes just wants to see the entire world burn. It’s partly why I can’t help but dismiss it when some other kindly people tell me I’m a good man, because I know I’m not. For the most part, however, the reaction seems to be that the anger gets reflected back into myself. I’ve mentally observed this happening as a reflex when I have gotten angry at other people: feelings of anger (because of what is stored up, vastly disproportionate to any supposed offence) deflecting off those inward mental walls and then directing themselves at the only remaining target. At other times, it simply adds extra venom to my feelings of failure or unlovableness,
Of course, with all these feelings, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a believer in the gospel of Christ. People might wonder how that can be the case: how can I claim to believe something which teaches of a loving God, yet still experience these sorts of feelings?
On one level, it is very simple. Due to the spiritual experiences I have had, I know that God is very real, I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know He revealed Himself to His prophets. They simply are true, regardless of what I feel about things.
On the other hand, it does make certain things a struggle. There have been a few occasions in my life, as mentioned, that I have felt the love of God as a supernal experience. And I try to hold onto those experiences. Sometimes I find I can remember an event so clearly I can put myself right back into it. At other times, they can feel like pale reflections, where I’m not quite sure about the emotions involved. But while I do know there is a God, and I know he is perfect, just and merciful, and know he loves all mankind, I find it a struggle to believe he loves me. I can know of it intellectually, because of what I know about him and because of memories of the experiences I’ve had, but sometimes its hard to feel it. It’s slightly easier when I simply include myself in all mankind, but when talking about any kind of love or compassion personally it gets more difficult. But on the other hand, sometimes it feels like that doesn’t matter. One should obey God because he is right, because he is perfectly good and so whatever he wills is good. And I can trust in that, and follow that, and so on one level the issue of whether God loves me or not seems almost unimportant. I should follow him anyway, and I’ve tried to.
And in certain situations, that’s kept me alive. On a few occasions the only thing keeping me from an exceptionally unwise act has been the knowledge that suicide is wrong, and my body is not mine to dispose of, and there’s covenants involved. Were I of a clearer mind at those moments, I could doubtless also reflect that if escape is any motivation, the afterlife doesn’t really provide it. Clear thinking tends to be difficult at those times though.
Yet in other things this continues to be a struggle, and one that does not appear to be likely to disappear any time soon. I know – I absolutely know – that the feelings I experience are not ones that the gospel is trying to inculcate, and that there are doubtless many inaccuracies in my feelings and how I perceive the world. I want to overcome that. Yet I’m not always sure where those inaccuracies are, and while I’ve gained a better understanding of what I feel and where some of it comes from, it has yet to allow me to dispose of these feelings. Sometimes what some people suggest doesn’t seem any more truthful (especially when explicitly justified on “don’t ask if its true, ask whether it is helpful”). I don’t find myself convinced by modern gospels of self-esteem, which likewise don’t seem to tally with the scriptures either. The scriptures themselves, however, don’t seem to explicitly address this issue all that often, which is perhaps why I’m interested in things like Jacob’s experiences. But perhaps they’re not meant to be addressed, but endured. I’ve had these feelings before, and I know I’ll feel them again, and perhaps with Christ’s help I can persevere through them yet again. I’m not entirely sure whether this is at all relevant to my situation, but I find my mind thinking of the words of Paul (who elsewhere wrote of himself as “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle”, 1 Corinthians 15:9):
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
I know the way I feel is mistaken, somewhere along the line, and I want to feel differently from the way I do. Yet I do believe in God (which is to say, I know he’s there and I trust him), and in Christ’s grace. If there is to be any solution to this, either in this life or merely persevering through it in this life, I know his grace is sufficient, and to be found in his strength, not any I can cobble up myself. Perhaps there is something yet more I can learn from my weakness, or perhaps there’s simply the humility of knowing that I depend on his strength to go on. I honestly don’t really know, but I know of God’s power, and I know there’s even times that’s been able to work through me, as flawed a vessel as I am. I’m not able to “glory in my infirmities” (Paul is a better man than I). But perhaps I can simply hold on.
Within the last two years I’ve had the occasion to really examine the role of emotion in my life. I don’t like to talk of “journeys” because that tends to sound like hippyish nonsense, but events and certain long-held beliefs in my life have forced me to confront either long-buried emotions or feel whole new ones.
At the same time, right at the beginning of this process, a friend pointed out to me that the scriptural instruction is to “bridle all your passions” (Alma 38:12). While my practice for most of my life has been to attempt to suppress my emotions, to lock them up in some mental concentration camp, a bridle does not kill the horse, or even stop it most of the time: the bridle allows one to steer the horse. So too with our emotions: Christ felt every emotion we do, the difference is that he controlled them rather than being controlled by them. Emotions are part of our immortal existence (both God and pre-mortal spirits feel emotion, e.g. Moses 7:29,34; Job 38:7; Abraham 3:28), and we cannot end them. Rather we must learn to steer them, so that instead of being a weakness our feelings may become a strength.
I’ve touched on this topic before, as well as the example of the Saviour, in considering happiness and unhappiness. But I’ve been giving thought to the role of other emotions too, particularly those we regards as negative, or as having no proper place. And the one that has particularly come to mind is fear.
I doubt that few other emotions have such a bad reputation – perhaps only hate is seen as a more negative emotion. I’ve heard repeatedly the claim that we should never fear, or that faith cannot coexist with fear, or that it casts out fear. There is some scriptural support for some of this: we are taught that we should “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36) and that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) though notice the latter passage doesn’t say faith. Yet the scriptures also teach repeatedly that we should “fear God” (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 2:17 and many others). While I agree that this fear has more the air of reverence and awe than abject terror, we find that the scriptures use the same words for the “negative” and “positive” uses of the term (and this is true in Hebrew, Greek and English). Thus Joseph Smith is told “you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7); the (undesirable) fear of man cannot therefore have an entirely different semantic meaning than the (desirable) fear of God. We are also instructed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, cf. Mormon 9:27), and told that at the very moment that the Brother of Jared was so full of faith that he pierced the veil and saw the finger of the Lord that “he fell with fear” (Ether 3:19).
What can explain this apparent dichotomy? I think we should realise first that just because some, even most, fear is wrong doesn’t mean all fear must be wrong; love, after all, while seen as more positive can also mislead, be distorted or be a snare for sin.
Yet I also think there is also something more powerful at play, something that I think I caught of glimmer of in the following clip from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bruce Wayne/Batman has been imprisoned in a pit, one that no one has climbed out of except for a child. While he recovers his health, his attempts to climb out continue to fail, until the following:
It is the dialogue at 1:04 onwards that gets my attention:
Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.
How often do we simply try to deny fear, or seek some sort of world security – “a rope”? Are the scriptural injunctions against fear directing us simply not to feel it? As I have discovered with a range of emotions, trying to deny or suppress our emotions is unlikely to work. Surely such instructions are about not letting our fears (other than our fear of God) control us, not allowing such fears to prevent us acting in faith. For what is the truly faithful position, the real exercise of faith? Is it to act in complete ignorance of the risks we run and the dangers we face? Is it to only act when we have put our own safety net into place? Or is it to depend upon God in the full face of fear, to act in spite of our very real and grounded fears? To know that without Him we face a certain doom, and yet place ourselves in danger because of our trust in Him?
God would have us climb all manner of pits, but it strikes me that in order for us to learn to depend upon him, he would have us climb “without the rope”. I am reminded of the frequent instruction in scripture that when proclaiming the gospel that we should “neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). I’ve repeated that verse to many people, and many of them have something to me along the lines of “well it’s easy for you, but I don’t have your talents, so I have my talk/notes written out so I have something to rely on”. They do not know that I used to be utterly incapable of any kind of public speaking, that I even froze when trying to speak in sacrament and had to be escorted down from the stand. In order to speak, I had to let go of any rope and rely solely on God’s promise and not any notes. And I am still terrified. But God would have us rely on him and not our own papers.
How often does God have us climb without any rope? Why were the Children of Israel led into a dead end, with no escape from Pharaoh except across the Red Sea? Or Elijah directed to challenge the 400 Priests of Baal alone in full view of the people? David not only faced Goliath, but he chose do so without Saul’s armour. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew God could save them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t know that he would until they were thrown in. In each case, these ancient saints faced very real, and in some cases very avoidable, terrors. They were directed so that they all faced the climb, but were left without rope. They all had to face situations where they could feel fear and know that their only hope was the power of God.
I believe that sometimes it is only in such circumstances that God’s power is manifest, even to us. It is only in such circumstances, when we feel our own fears (whether that be to our life, or our livelihood, or some more minor but very real feeling matter) but choose to act regardless, that we can truly recognise our need for God’s power. Faith, I believe, is found not in denying fear, but in feeling it – even when directed placing ourselves in its path – but choosing instead in that moment to willingly risk our fears and depend upon God. It is only when we actually fear that our faith becomes a choice, and having made that choice – even having had faith longer than is possible – we can then see impossible miracles.
I hadn’t planned to return to this topic so soon, and I don’t plan to do so at any length.
Concerning the amendments to the Church handbook of instructions that I discuss more here, I see quite a few comments talking about how the policies mean they are “hurting”.
Most of these people saying this don’t seem to be directly affected by the policy, but anyway:
We should always be prepared to feel compassion. I struggle with this, as I am an imperfect human being, but Christ is our master, and he showed and taught us what we should do.
Mention is sometimes made of suicide and suicidal thoughts. I sympathise – I personally know very well what that feels like. If anyone genuinely felt that way, and thought that perhaps I could help, I would want them to get in contact with me.
Some people, however, seem intent on using such feelings – or the feelings of others – as an argument for why the policy should be changed. “Change this policy” this line demands, “or you are hurting these people and some may harm themselves!”
Forgive me for being blunt (though Christ also said we should speak truth): in a marriage there’s a term for when people attempt to control the actions of others through threats of self-harm or suicide. It’s called emotional abuse.
I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of [i]being[/i] fortunate, and not necessarily [i]feeling[/i] overjoyed.
However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.
There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.
Unhappiness is not a sin
As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.
Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).
Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions
It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.
That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.
Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.
We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.