How do you feel, right now? I have started asking myself this question, randomly, a few times a day. Often enough, the answer is, 'I don't know.' I don't think I am alone in this. Beyond our physical states - 'I am tired, I am hungry, I am stressed, my leg hurts', and very strong emotions - 'I am furious, I am freaking out, I am so scared, I am elated', I think it is often hard to locate our actual feelings. Or, I will say, it's hard for me. And so I check in with myself, I practice seeing if I can identify my feelings on regular days, normal moments, when not much is going on. Right now I feel a tiny bit anxious, a little bit annoyed, but mostly content and grateful and focused. Pretty basic for me. I do these check-ins not just out of curiosity, but also out of my commitment to non-violent communication, or as I prefer to call it, holy conversation. Because I believe that the first step to learning how to improve our relationship with God and others, especially in times of conflict, is to have an understanding of how we feel. And I think that if I get good at this when I am not in conflict, it will come more naturally when I am.
Working with congregations and others as a coach and facilitator of holy conversation skills, I have learned a few things about how we relate, and one of the big ones is about feelings. It seems to me that we treat often them as things on the periphery of what we do, ancillary to our work or even our relationships. We have tasks at hand, even if those tasks are learning how to love one another, and how we feel about them is not as important as the steps we take to make them better. Whether we are trying to get a report written or a disease diagnosed or figure out what to make for dinner, how we feel is irrelevant to the work.
Or is it? Participating in holy conversation has convinced me it is exactly the opposite. How we feel is at the center of everything we do, and in fact motivates us and shapes our actions in practically every way. If we are writing a report with someone else and we feel angry at them, it can certainly hamper the process. If we are trying to diagnose a disease and we feel anxious about making a mistake, it could paradoxically make a mistake more likely. If we are making dinner with another, whether we are in love with them or can barely stand to be around them will heavily influence that process.
Often I am meeting with church groups who are in conflict about something: someone doesn't like the music or the new service time or children running around during the service. It seems reasonable to think that if we come up with a solution to the problem - alternating hymnals, perhaps, or starting a new family service, then this will ease the conflict. My experience is that these things rarely work, or at least not until we move from trying to come up with a plan to fix things and instead get clear about how we feel about them.
'I feel lonely when we sing songs I don't know instead of the ones I grew up with.' 'I feel stressed when I have to get up earlier on a Sunday for church, when it is my one day to sleep in.' 'I feel frustrated when the noise level is so high I can't hear and have trouble praying.' Locating and sharing our feelings helps us know one another, listen to one another, and build trust and compassion between one another. It also allows us to find creative solutions rather than entrenched positions and labeling ('you just hate change', 'you don't like children', etc).
There is such power to knowing our own feelings, and sharing them appropriately. I believe it influences every aspect of our lives, personally and even globally (what is war but collective anger? What is poverty but our fear of scarcity causing some to hoard and others to starve?)
But first we have to know how we feel, which is not always easy. I am not a therapist, so I am not so interested in why we feel something (I am not even entirely convinced we can know why). I am theologian, so I care what we feel. I care that, in the presence of God, 'all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.' Here is the beginning of holy conversation and improved relationships, and it starts with a very simple daily practice with exponentially peaceful results: how are you feeling?