As an educator — a teacher of little people — I see children every day dealing with big feelings and trying to figure out how to handle them. We have picture books about this topic, and most schools these days have a school counselor who helps kids work through their emotions. I find that as adults, we shy away from emotions. Either we don’t talk about how we feel, or we try to avoid processing our feelings. Emotions are hard. They cause us pain and/or discomfort.
In 2021, Brene Brown released her book titled Atlas of the Heart. The book goes into detail about a variety of emotions — positive emotions, negative emotions and emotions that are somewhere in between. Brene knows what many adults can’t acknowledge: We have big feelings too. Brene also believes that confronting our feelings leads to a richer, healthier life.
A while back I read the book A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, a book that evoked strong emotions in me and numerous other readers. I have to say, I had a strong distaste for the book for maybe the first third of it. I couldn’t stand the negativity of the man called Ove. As the story progresses, I began to understand Ove’s story and why he was so unlikeable. Ove was frozen in a state of deep grief. Eventually, Ove becomes a friend — almost a grandpa type figure — to his new neighbors, and he ends up finding a way to live again. Ove had big feelings with no outlet for them. What finally healed him was friendship and connection.
Naturally, when I saw the previews for the movie A Man Called Otto, I knew I needed to see it. I took my husband to see it last weekend. A Man Called Otto was a beautiful film, and I am already anticipating seeing it again. But as I was sitting through it, crying in several parts, I got to thinking. Why can’t grown-ups talk about feelings? Why are we so uncomfortable sitting with and working through our big emotions? Am I the only weirdo out there who talks about things like joy and grief and happiness?
There is a part in the movie where Tom Hanks (Otto) was sitting at his wife’s grave talking to her. Tears were running down my cheeks. My husband looked over at me and mouthed, “What’s wrong?” We weren’t even thirty minutes into the show, and I was already crying. I would have been sobbing if there hadn’t been people around. This movie showed a man experiencing so many different feelings, grief in particular, without a way to process these feelings. I understand. And I think other viewers will understand this, too.
How do I explain my own big emotions during this scene, throughout the film, and in life? This movie made me think about grief — Otto’s and my own. It made me think about love, life, friendship, work, acceptance and purpose. However, it wasn’t just this film that got me thinking. These ideas and emotions rattle around in my head all the time. I am a person who feels things deeply. I accept that now, and I even like that about myself. In the last few years, I’ve learned to sit with these feelings. I hold them in my hand and feel their shape and texture. I talk about them and write about them. I try to make people feel comfortable talking about them too.
The truth is, dealing with big emotions is not just something children experience. Feeling, managing, and understanding our emotions is part of being human. I don’t believe that we ever master the many emotions we encounter in this life, but I do believe it is healthier to understand — and maybe even work through — emotions that are both helpful and harmful. Sometimes we do this internally and privately, and sometimes we do this with the help of friends or a therapist. But I don’t believe we can just push our feelings down and expect to feel okay.
Back to our curmudgeonly loveable protagonist Otto. Otto was a grouchy old man, but he was that way because he could not see a path through his grief. He loved deeply, and the person he loved the most died. What he discovered, though, was a way back. Otto found a way to live again. He rebuilt his life. He found new ways to be useful. His grief was not completely expelled, but by the end of the movie his grief was at least shared. Otto evolved into a person who opened his heart to new and uncomfortable emotions, and he lived a richer life because of this.
I want to be like Otto. I want to evolve and grow and feel. I want to face my emotions and be unafraid to just sit with them. I want to create a rich, vibrant life despite grief, fear, uncertainty and other emotions that get in the way. I believe wholeheartedly that this life is possible if I allow myself to feel and process both the good and the bad.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”