Earlier this year Disney’s Inside Out won the Academy Award for best animated feature. The film captured the American imagination of pre-teen angst, in a story about the emotional control tower of a brain in the crisis of “normal” development.
Riley, the protagonist, is faced with the stress of her family’s move to another state. As her adventure comes to a head, she returns home to her feelings-friendly parents. She receives the kind of affirmation that in the “happily ever after” we can easily imagine Riley growing into a well-adjusted adult.
My son and I have watched the movie a couple times, and each time I tried to imagine how the story might have played out differently if Riley were a boy. Especially in a world where emotional expression within gender roles can still remain static. Or like in my East Harlem neighborhood where to express certain emotions is to betray weakness. Would gender have drastically changed the dynamics of a movie about emotions?
It has taken me years to get in tune with my own emotional control tower. I feel comfortable expressing, well…some feelings. My spectrum runs somewhere between joy and anger. Anger often invites its more acceptable cousins, irritation and annoyance. But sadness? Well, only if I can express anger about being sad.
It can take years to learn what author Peter Scazzero aptly calls “emotional health.” Many in the church who have taken on this task are learning a new language, accent and all. I find it’s more than being in touch with some form of inner landscape. For many of us becoming emotionally honest is actually a taking up of the cross.
For many of us becoming emotionally honest is actually a taking up of the cross.
For me, being slow on the emotional uptake means lumbering between emotions, moving less fluidly, not easily switching to southpaw. Every now and again I feel…let me think…irritated at how fast my wife anticipates my feelings before I can even process them myself.
While this is not the case with all men, machismo can be a universal shorthand crossing cultural, political, and ecclesial boundaries. It can blind us to how we might suppress the more “passionate” voices in church leadership.
In my experience it has often been the prophetic voices of women that rescue me from the pitfalls of churchy, passive aggressive behavior. It also takes a pastor choosing vulnerability over a culture that favors emotional austerity.
As in most churches, in my church the women outnumber the men. Some might believe this is due to a crisis of manhood in the larger church. But
what if instead it was an indictment on the gospel we’ve inherited—the gospel that fails to lift up human wholeness as a reflection of God’s image, regardless of gender?
I believe a more integrated gospel can teach us that feelings are our friends—not the anti-intellectual hijackers we often purport them to be. We men need not fear being overtaken. Rather, we can respond in faith, knowing that feelings, once processed in prayer (or therapy), don’t have to be the final say.
Biblical meditation becomes important for this formation. We can consider a weeping King on his way to Jerusalem, one who broods over the city, desiring to gather her “like a hen gathers her chicks.” Somehow a convulsive sob became as much a sign of the kingdom as a leper cured from disease.
I hope this kind of shalom will not be hidden from our eyes as it was Israel’s.
The church continues to need images that run deeper than men willing to strap on a Baby Bjorn. We can cultivate an empathic imagination, where emotional health is a sign and wonder to future generations of boys, an affirmation that they can freely wear their emotions on their very bodies. This would be yet another sign of God’s very good life for the world, right here, right now.