William Hamilton

‘We choose our words, not our feelings’

“We choose our words, not our feelings,” Ben wisely said this week. We were having a conversation after morning services. Our topic was human emotion. And how painful feelings grow twice as big when we hold them inside and don’t express them. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we’re feeling the things we feel. Emotions that are unpleasant, like anxiety and anger, are the ones we’d prefer to avoid. Sure, anxiety and anger should be avoided when they’re unnecessary. But sometimes they are necessary to keep us safe and to keep life fair. Trying too hard to evade them isn’t always good for us. Dwelling within them, moving through them, can be healthier. Here’s the key: we’re not built to have to do this all by ourselves. 

The human body is assembled to fit with others. We’re built for compatibility. A conversation between psychologist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary and optimist Simon Sinek this week drives this lesson home. Listening to it will be well-worth your 34 minutes and 16 seconds.

It’s important to be clear. Anxiety disorders are real. They can be quite acute. They must never be treated lightly.

But what if we’re sleep-walking through a time, our time, when we’re not handling emotional-fitness as well as we might.  

There’s a verse from this Monday night’s Scroll of Esther, which is chanted publicly on the annual holiday of Purim, that can speak to missing things that happen in plain sight. The original context finds Haman, who wants to inflict fatal harm to the Jews of Persia (back in 465 before the Common Era). He is describing the Jewish People’s non-conformity to the King. “There is a certain people (yaish-no am)…who don’t keep the King’s laws” (Es. 3:8). Another way to read the Hebrew words for a certain people (yaish’no am) is as a people who sleeps (yo-shain).

What are some of us, including yours truly, sleep-walking through today? Some things are hard to miss. Spikes in hate-acts. Spasms of despicable deeds. But some things are more subtle, like the way we are relating to emotional-fitness. This may be worthy of more careful consideration. Feeling anxious doesn’t only indicate we’re broken and in a free-fall. It can also generate opportunities. 

I hope you find this to be more than some feel-better fantasy. Because it’s a scientifically proven way to go with-the-grain of our biology. Oxytocin, the hormone that yearns for hugs and human connection, is released when you’re feeling anxious. Perhaps it’s whispering “you’re going to be ok” because a trusted friend wants to hear from you. They want to say: “You’re not in this alone, I’ll make sure of it. I’ve got your back.”

Threats are real, and need to be taken very seriously. But taking them seriously doesn’t insist that we stiffen and struggle on our own. The way forward isn’t around unpleasant feelings. It’s through them. Your body is telling you that doing this alone isn’t called for. 

This weekend, if you find yourself feeling anxious, reach out to somebody who believes in you. Or make a call to somebody who may be feeling vulnerable. In doing so, you may just find yourself helping the person you meet in the mirror every morning, yourself, after a better night’s sleep.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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