It is a true gift to experience insight or unveil a layer of delusion – especially on an average Thursday morning. My favourite maintenance worker at my University is a curious man. We’ll call him Albert. He is intelligent enough to be a professor in any classroom but has intentionally chosen landscape as his vocation of choice. He has a unique view of the world – one for which I feel grateful to be included whenever possible. A sunny day in late spring, Albert was just prepping to do some whipper-snipping as I wished him a good morning. Poised the typical question, “how are you?” In retrospect, many of my life changing moments have resulted from connecting to others; choosing to reach out rather than distance and insulate.
Interpreting my question, Albert pointed to his earplugs and then redirected me to two button pins pinned neatly to his baseball cap: “dejected” and “derivative”. I should note here that our institution recently organized a mental health awareness week and one of the promotional schwag included buttons with “Today I am” and emotion (like awkward, excited, or okay). After the event, Albert told me that he was taking a few extra to modify at home as their selection was a bit limited.
Pointing to these two seemingly negative emotions, I immediately went to the consoling, caregiver mode – looking to give help to the emotionally wounded. Albert registered my look of concern and shook his head and gave a shrug. With a simple gesture, something shifted. I nodded slowly with slow recognition and said: “I like it.” Albert smiled even wider and responded, “You don’t have to.”
With our simple exchange, I had a moment of a profound truth. The identification and acceptance of an emotional state is – counterintuitively – what can liberate us from our pain (or pleasure) in that moment. To pull back and see these emotions as two sides of the same coin: In Setting Free the Kits, Alex George shares, “But love and pain are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Sometimes that’s how we know we’re alive.”
There is nothing to fix, we are not broken.
In these still moments, time can slow down and provide its own space for growth. My immediate response was to dive into empathy; I would be compassionate and understanding, but with the intent to help fix the feeling. To make the bad feelings go away. The beauty in our exchange was – as Albert reminded me – there is nothing to fix. Nothing is wrong; this is the human experience; the isolation of rejection, waves of despair, the hot fire of anger, or sweet enveloping of sensual pleasure. This is what it is to be human.
When Albert smiled after shrugging his shoulders, he also signalled something as equally wise. The buttons he wore were not him.
Know Your Emotions
Knowing your emotions – recognizing them as they without judgement – and accepting them – you can begin to see them as separate to yourself. You are no longer trapped behind your emotion, allowing it to unconsciously colour how you perceive the world. A curt comment from a co-worker may espouse anger and entitlement in one mental state, or could produce a softening of the heart, and pause in your automatic response to see the pain in someone else. Acceptance creates a space to feel your emotions without automatically acting on them. This is where wisdom can grow. We can begin to feel the emotion without becoming the emotion.
And then with a final sweep of the knife, true liberation.
“I like it.”
“You don’t have to.”
Kelley Mitton is an experienced project manager with over 15 years in adult education, and corporate training & development industry.