Breathing Emotionally

Ronald Rolheiser
October 28, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

One of the things that made Henri Nouwen such a loved writer was his disarming honesty. He hid little about himself.

And one of the things that he was able to give voice to was his constant struggle to be affirmed, to be made to feel special, to be touched, to be singled out for admiration, to feel tangible proofs of love. Over and over again, in his diaries, he shares his yearning for this. The wording varies, but the pleading is always along these lines:

Today the small rejections of my life are too much for me - a sarcastic smile, a flippant remark, a brisk denial, a bitter silence, a failure to be noticed, a coldness from a colleague, an indifference from someone I love, a nagging tiredness, the lack of a soul mate, a loneliness that I can't explain. I feel empty, alone, afraid, restless, unsure of myself, and I look around for invitations, letters, phone calls, gifts, for someone to catch my eye in sympathy, for some warm gesture that can heal my emptiness. And right now I don't particularly want God, faith, church, or even a big and gracious heart. I want simply to be held, embraced, loved by someone special, made to feel unique, kissed by a soul mate. I'm empty, a half-person. I need someone to make me whole.

What Nouwen articulates in this is not a particular neurosis, immaturity, narcissism, or a lack of intimacy. That may be true too of him (or any of us) on a given day, but what he expresses here is the universal human struggle for emotional and spiritual maturity. And that struggle isn't easy.

We aren't born simple, mature, whole, saints. That's life's journey. We're born complex, lonely, greedy, restless, with powerful, selfish instincts that remain with us even when we are mature. What Nouwen gives expression to is the aching and pressures we feel inside of us because of those instincts.

And it's not a just a question of finding intimacy and meaning in our lives (a spouse, a family, close friends, someone to socialize with, meaningful work). Having these can help, but nothing ultimately takes our loneliness away or fully reprograms our instincts and so the day inevitably arrives when the pain that Nouwen expresses here begins to gnaw away inside us. To feel this kind of need for tangible affirmation is not a sign that there's something wrong in our lives but simply a sign that we're emotionally healthy and not calloused, warped, or depressed. In the end, it's healthy to feel our need for the touch of another in a way that's so visceral that it drives us to our knees.

And that isn't just emotionally painful, it's also spiritually confusing. When we take this tension to prayer and ask God to take it away, more often than not it will seem that our prayer isn't heard. The tension will remain and sometimes even intensify. Why?

Not because God hasn't heard our prayer, but because we are being weaned, just as surely as a baby from its mother's breast. What's happening is this: Our natural instincts give us one way of breathing emotionally. What naturally gives us energy, emotional oxygen, is the good feelings we derive from tangible love, emotional affirmation, loving touch, and physical pleasure. It's not that these are wrong, it's just we won't ever become mature if our motivation for living with and serving others is contingent upon always having to feel these. We'll never grow mature if unconsciously we keep saying: I will love you and stay with you, as long as there's something in it for me.

Maturity, emotional and spiritual, demands that ultimately we choose love, choose service, choose prayer, and choose God, not on the basis of a feeling but on the basis of value, truth, and goodness. We are mature when love is a decision that's not based upon an emotional pay- off for us but on the intrinsic goodness that's inside the other.

But to come to this, we have to learn a new way of breathing emotionally. The excruciating pain we feel sometimes when precisely we want nothing more in the world than a physical and emotional touch that we can't have is, in essence, a weaning, the pain of the child who has to cry herself to sleep because her mother will no longer nurse her, but is forcing her instead to learn a new way of taking in sustenance. Our prayers don't seem to be heard because God, like a good mother, knows that giving a certain emotional breast back to the child only delays the inevitable. Maturity lies in learning how to breathe emotionally in a new way.

The mystics called this "a dark night of the soul". And we are in one of these dark nights every time we feel the kind of aloneness that drives us to our knees pleading in mercy for the kind of tangible touch that, for a moment at least, would let us feel whole again.