“A notorious inability to express emotions makes human beings the only animals capable of suicide.”
― Alain de Botton
I spent three months living in Mexico last year and, with my broken Spanish, I got to know some of my neighbors. One evening, as I was making my way home from the market along our dusty side street, I started talking to the woman across the road.
She had just returned from the doctor. She told me she’d been diagnosed with gastrointestinal problems, which the doctor related to stress. And stress she had. Her husband was recently diagnosed with heart disease and she was sick with worry. Worst of all, she wasn’t able to process through her anxiety, because he was always her greatest confidante, but now that he was sick, she had to make sure she didn’t stress him out.
The doctor gave her some diet and exercise pointers, but before he even mentioned medication, he told her the problem was that she was keeping all of her emotions inside.
“If you keep them in, they turn into stomach ulcers,” he said, “but if you go and talk about it, talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, talk about how you feel —you will let the feelings out. They will not make you sick.”
I realized, while she was speaking, that she was doing that very thing, right there, with me: sharing her feelings. I thanked her for opening up to me and told her that she can come to me if she ever needs to talk again. She beamed, her eyes a little softer, her posture a little lighter.
Some people will look at this story and say, “Sure, the Mexican doctor says to talk to your friends. That just shows how poor their medical system is.” But I see something different. In that doctor, I see a human being who remembers that treating symptoms is secondary to curing diseases. I see someone who understands the concept of addressing a root cause of illness, rather than minimizing the damaging effects of it. I see something important, something we can all learn from.
In some way, we can all relate to this woman and we can relate to the doctor. We are the people struggling with the weight of our emotions and we are the people others consult about how to handle that weight. What will you do with the built-up emotions within you? What will you do when others approach you with theirs?
I hope that, if you are struggling—emotionally, mentally, physically—you’ll take the Mexican doctor’s advice. Let those feelings out. Talk about it. Even if you’re talking to your journal by yourself in an empty room. That still counts. That still matters.
If you know someone who’s struggling and isolated, help them talk about it. Even if they don’t have the right words. Even if you sit in silence as they try to feel safe. Even if they shower you with complaints, excuses, and justifications. Even if you can see they’re just playing small, being irrational, blaming circumstances. Just be there. It all counts. It all matters.
It is so easy to forget the importance of emotional self-care. Especially when we have obvious symptoms of mental and physical illness. Emotions seem irrelevant, unrelated, invisible. But when we look at a giant oak tree, the seed that bore it is invisible too.
The human being is so complicated in some ways, and yet so simple in others. Sometimes, we need complex medication regimens. Yet, sometimes, we just need a good cry.
Whenever I return to the developed world, I am always amazed by the intricacy of our infrastructure, the maturity of our technology, the cleanliness, the logistics. And yet, I am shocked by not only the lack of simple wisdom, but the fashionable ridicule of it.
Isaac Asimov once said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
May we all have the courage to pursue the simple wisdom offered by that doctor. May we all become emotional activists—changing society by changing the tapestry of our experience. Because if we can learn to be more kind, careful, and aware with how we care for ourselves, imagine what we can learn about caring for each other, for our communities, and for our planet.