Let’s play a game real quick. Think of three types of people who are really bad at expressing their feelings. I’ll give you a minute.
Okay, who did you think of?
Was your list close to mine? Here’s what I think of: men in general, military folks, and Christian evangelicals.
The three groups I named are stereotypically really bad at talking about their feelings, and in this case I can say pretty confidently that the stereotypes exist for a reason. I was raised at the intersection of those three groups, and I seriously struggle with feeling my feelings. The reasons for this are complex. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy working through them, and my work here will probably never be over, but I want to share what that intersection has looked like in my life.
Men: Trust Reason, Not Emotion
The patriarchal society I grew up in taught me that women were the emotional ones, and men were supposed to be stoic and rational, stalwart sentries unbound by the tides of emotion. Real men were warriors, cowboys, hardened leaders, not lovers. Men had to make the hard decisions, and they had to be based on facts, not feelings. We needed data to drive us, and emotion would only cloud our reason. Emotion was something for us to conquer, to subdue.
According to what I was taught, this was intrinsic to our gender: men were predisposed to rationality, tasks of the mind, and physical work that required us to take dominion over our bodies. Women were predisposed to be nurturers, caretakers, and helpers. Women were prisoners in the realm of emotion, and it was men’s natural ability to disregard emotion that made us fit for leadership.
Military: Obey Orders Without Question
As a military child, and specifically as a military son, I learned at a young age that I was expected to fall in line and stay there. When someone in authority over me told me to do something, I obeyed without question. To hesitate, to inquire, was to disobey, and disobedience was punishable. If I took time to listen to my emotions, if I gave space to how I felt about what I was told to do, that delay was an act of insolence. Obedience required immediate action.
This is not just a theoretical exercise for military members. When soldiers are on the battlefield, they must obey without question because lives are at stake. Questions and hesitations can result in danger not just to the individual, but to entire squadrons and companies. So to protect itself, military training teaches soldiers to obey without hesitation. This training carries with it some unintended consequences, though.
First, it teaches members of the military to ignore feelings about what they are doing, because the only thing that matters is immediate obedience. But we are human, and we are made to feel things. Witnessing and participating in military violence should wrench our emotions. Violence should give us pause, and it is partially because of this inability to consider the implications of obedience that soldiers sometimes commit atrocities on behalf of their governments. And then, when the battle is over and their bodies force them to consider what they’ve witnessed, they often don’t have the resources to make sense of it all, because the capacity to think and feel has been drilled out of them.
The second unintended consequence is where this topic becomes personal for me as a military kid. The military’s form of instruction does not allow for contextualization –for them, obedience is a worldview. It doesn’t teach its members when to obey without question – it only teaches to obey without question. As a result, military members tend to search for an authority to guide them throughout their lives. Whether they are entrenched on a battlefield, piloting a drone, settling into a post-service career, or exploring life after retirement, they often gravitate to authoritarian figures and institutions to give them a sense of grounding. And as these military members have children, they tend to pass this worldview on, teaching their children to obey without question, that pausing to understand how you feel about something is an act of insubordination. As I can attest personally, this perspective stunts the emotional development of children and renders them unable and unwilling to understand what their body is feeling, even as they grow into adulthood.
Evangelical: The Body Is Evil
The conservative evangelical position on feelings is, in my experience, deeply dualistic. There is an embedded understanding that the flesh is weakness, the body is sinful, and the messages sent by our bodies are tainted by Satan’s temptations. Our flesh focuses on advancing its own causes, guiding us to selfish ambition; it desires comfort above all us, guiding us to laziness; it seeks self-gratification, guiding us to impurity and corruption. The body is irredeemable, and it is only through death and resurrection, by which we are given new, incorruptible bodies, that we can be perfected.
Our souls are that separate part of us that endures after our body passes away. To the extent that we desire wholeness, that we recognize something missing inside of ourselves, that recognition comes from our soul. Our souls are redeemable, indeed are continually drawing us to seek connection with God.
Within this paradigm, purity is impossible in this life because our souls are subject to our bodies – the only purity we can claim is that which is spiritually imputed to our souls by the bodily death of Jesus Christ. He took on flesh and conquered it, both as a means of imputing righteousness to us and as an example of how we ought to live.
It is no wonder, then, that this form of evangelical Christianity teaches us to ignore the feelings of our bodies. If those feelings do not specifically align with the teachings of Scripture, then those are sinful temptations of the flesh and must be overcome. To listen to those feelings is to give space for Satan to latch onto our souls.
Through my mid- to late-twenties, I was a conservative evangelical man who was raised in a military household, and I had no idea how to handle my emotions. I became adept at identifying my emotions because I knew that the instant I felt them rising I had to push them aside, but my ability to identify and disregard them did give me an understanding of why they rose up in the first place or what they were trying to tell me. I would bury them, over and over and over again, deep inside myself, until finally they would explode with volcanic violence and hurt the people I loved the most.
It has only been in the last few years that I have come to understand how important it is for me to listen to these messages of my body, and I am still learning how to interpret and express what I feel. I will have much more to say on this in future blog posts, but for now I want to leave with this:
Life is not a battlefield. Listening to my body is not sinful. Emotions are messages, alerts from my body that I am experiencing something really important, and that I need to stop and pay attention. And when I do pay attention, I discover more about the way God made me and am able to be a better participant in the kingdom of God and gospel of Christ.