I have a regular walking route around the city where I live. I particularly like taking a stroll in autumn when the trees are at their peak.
A few years ago, the trees lining the street were especially beautiful—that stunning gold, yellow that steals the breath. During one walk, however, I turned a corner to witness a scene even more arresting than the trees around me: a young man stepped up on the curb to embrace a young woman in the most tender of ways. He reached out slowly, gently and she leaned into him in trust. It was a snapshot of love and beauty that has remained with me. I remember thinking at the time that I shouldn’t have seen it. That the moment wasn’t meant for me. Yet, that is where my eyes fell—at the precise instance of their embrace.
And then a strange thing happened: I felt feelings. As a gay kid growing up on the church, I have worked hard to not feel anything—to keep everything at the level of my intellect. This, of course, was a coping mechanism to deal with too many feelings most of which seemed to run counter to my growing faith. I just couldn’t figure out how to sync my desire for other guys with what I was learning about Jesus.
So I taught myself not to feel. Stoicism takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but over time I got the knack for it. I discovered two important techniques that made the difference: (1) rationalization: every happening has a purpose or purposes, so spend time exploring purpose and don’t waste time with feelings, and (2) look away: don’t keep your eyes fixed on any one thing for too long.
But during that autumn stroll, I didn’t look away. I couldn’t stop looking at this guy hugging this girl. Even after I rounded the bend, I didn’t stop seeing them. I couldn’t erase or rationalize away this core feeling: I desire that embrace. I couldn’t erase or rationalize away this core feeling: I desire that embrace. Truthfully, I’ve wanted it all along—to feel close to someone in that way, to lean into someone and have someone lean into me. But I didn’t have that and couldn’t have that with another man.
I walked the rest of the way home fuming. Why had God let me see this? Why rub my nose in an experience I wanted, but couldn’t have? Is God a sadist or a lover?
And there was the question of all questions: does God mean well by me or not? Does God have my best in mind, or does he receive pleasure from my suffering? After all, he did send his son to die on a cross. If he treats his son that way, could I hope for better treatment?
It is hard to be a feeling person in this world. Yet, I think God wants us to feel. A whole human being is one who thinks and feels for the good of all creation and the glory of God’s name. I believe this is what God was attempting to teach me that autumn day—that I can’t live well without my feelings; that to know what to do with my desires, I have to feel them.
I wish I could say I’m now doing an amazing job in the feeling department. I’m not. Most days my feelings are like a wave crashing me against the shoal. Some days I wonder if I won’t break apart.
I’m still learning to trust that God means well by me. That my suffering, all suffering, is meant to lay me at the feet of the one who sees it all and doesn’t turn away—the one who reaches out and keeps reaching out even when rejected. The question is now: will I reach back to find that embrace, the one embrace, I’ve desired from the beginning? Lord help me.