I wrote in my foreword/about page that I’m a “textbook Cancer”. While I don’t place any faith in astrology or horoscopes, yes; my personality happens to closely parallel the profile for someone born under Cancer (sensitive, nurturing, and creative, close to the moon and sea).
For a long time, I felt bad about this fun little detail about me, though. Apart from the association of “cancer” as in “grave/terminal illness”, Cancers are summed up as something much less-esteemable: “crybaby.” Tears, and openly showing emotion in general, are often something someone is shamed for, whether on the playground, in society, or at home (especially my home).
Then, when my family’s nomadic life brought us to yet another parish, I found something that challenged this notion.
This one continued an age-old tradition of painting the ceiling as the night sky. While the rest of the ceiling is a light cream color, they expressed this artistic tradition in a series of round panels, each one bearing a constellation, gold stars against deep blue. They follow the cruciform shape of the church, lined up and pointing to the altar. Out of all the constellations they could’ve chosen for the lone panel at the head of the “cross”, Cancer is the one placed over the innermost part of the sanctuary, where the tabernacle and the Divine Presence is kept.
The parish’s book explained they chose Cancer to be there because it “appears to be in the ‘shadows’ of the universe”, the panel being behind the center crucifix. Also, a crab’s claws are often interpreted as “encircling.” So, too, does God “[keep] us close to Himself.” The entry closes with a quote from Psalms: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, my refuge and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2).
It always amazes and moves me deeply when I visit that church, knowing that those stars I was born under was used as a symbol of God’s encompassing, intimate love. It also reminds me that God is actually quite tenderhearted under all that power and authority. The shortest verse in the Bible is so telling of this strange truth: mourning His friend Lazarus’ death, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35). For Jesus, God, to shed tears must mean that tears, emotional expression, are not something to be ashamed of.
Emotions are very much a part of the human experience. They’re involuntary in and of themselves, and are ultimately meant to help us in this life. Fear warns us of danger, driving our energy levels high to run from said danger. Anger arms us with that hot, fortifying energy to defend ourselves and/or another from attack. Disgust reminds us of our worth as human beings, driving us to avoid whatever it is that’s deemed below us. Affection encourages us to show someone love with a kind word or gesture. Sorrow similarly encourages us to love, to grieve good lost to us and/or another.
How we express it often depends on “nature” (our base disposition) and “nurture” (our culture, our upbringing, our choices and experiences). How we learn to (not) control it is likewise dependent on those things.
My “nature” has always been a very emotional one, true. On the “nurture” side of things, the abuse I suffered made me associate both shame and helplessness to this nature. By their example, I learned to either emotionally flat-line (be completely numb and unaware of my feelings), or have emotional palpitations (lose myself in a flood of emotion). I would feel nothing, or feel so intensely that I forget everything I learn, watching helplessly as the gigantic wave crashes down on me.
I’d often feel like the advice I get about getting a hold of my emotions to not apply, not for someone as emotionally sensitive as me (and that’s when I don’t automatically associate it with my abuse). The ones giving me this advice are not very (outwardly) emotional people. “They just don’t get it. They’re not like me,” I’d think, and take their advice only half-heartedly. But then, I look at my history, look at what this pattern of numbness/emotional flooding has done for me. I see how much harm it’s caused, living this way.
though I’m scared, I’d like to think about it, what it’d be like to take the helm for once, braving that ocean and those waves, and not be overcome by them.
Cancerian or Cancerous?
This is a question I think we can all stand to ask ourselves about our emotions, regardless of stars or birthdays. People seem to be between two unhealthy, “cancerous” extremes when it comes to emotions: strict repression, or unrestraint expression. It’s the question Jane Austen asked with her novel, Sense and Sensibility,* presenting us with Eleanor and Maryanne Dashwood, two sisters who seem to embody these two extremes. Their story asks, as we ought to ask, how sense (emotion) and sensibility (reason) play a part in life and in love.
A/N: A more recent example could be Disney’s Frozen, which could’ve very well been taking influences from Sense and Sensibility as well as The Snow Queen. I digress though.
Something I’ve observed about that, and other emotional matters, is that our greatest strengths tend to also be our greatest weaknesses. A person with a lot of courage and/or a strong sense of justice tends to also be someone who struggles his/her temper; courage and justice uses that same energy anger provides, which can (as we know) also be expressed as argumentativeness, prejudice, and rage. Meanwhile, someone who lives primarily by reason could be the one to calm and comfort another, or someone who is cold and condemning to another. Someone who has a good sense of self-respect could struggle with snobbery. The list goes on.
If I had to narrow down what my primary emotional strength is…my best guess is that I’m caring. I care very much about the hurts and hardships of others, and in the world. Before I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a doctor so I can care for people who were hurt or sick. While I took a different path, I still have that drive and desire. Between this desire and what I’ve been through, I don’t have to try too hard to have empathy or compassion for others. The more heart-to-heart connections I make (barring those that ended in heartbreak), the stronger this quality of caring becomes.
This manifests itself as a weakness in that I tend to care too much, which can quickly turn into depression and/or resentment. I’d be so hurt by how vicious and cruel people are to each other and the world, I’d exhaust my positive caring for negative caring: I’d hate, resent, and/or give up on people, the world, and myself. Additionally, I was groomed to have intense fear and anxiety about most everything: my abusers’ logic was that if I wasn’t anxious, I “didn’t care,” and so would emotionally abuse me to make me “care.” It was either extreme protectiveness, or extreme abandonment; there was very little in between, and left me constantly afraid.
I’ve come to control these feelings (and by “control”, I mean “what I learned to anesthetize myself”) in a number of negative ways. In the past, I used to chide myself for feeling angry, sad, or scared. I’d shame myself out of feeling this way, continuing my abuse. I also still have unhealthy, self-destructive habits that likewise continue my abuse, and offer an escape from my feelings. Some of my more benign habits include sweets, daydreaming, and getting lost on the internet. The worse I feel (sometimes under that heavy layer of numbness), the more I indulge.
This is where I’ve been lately; my counselor remarked on the dominant emotion of fear permeating everything we talked about today. Out of all the emotions, I’d say I struggle with fear the most. Sorrow can be cried out, joy can be smiled out, anger can be ranted/walked out. Fear? Fear freezes me in place, and when I “defrost”, I run away and hide like a little hermit crab. Fear is something Matthew Kelly rightly said that we are “driven in a different way [than our hopes and dreams], in a crazy way…away from our best selves,” and that “nothing kills intimacy like fears” (7 Levels of Intimacy).
…It really is so rare, I notice, that I ask myself, “What’s wrong?” in a kind, nonjudgmental way. It’s rare that I likewise comfort myself in that same kind way, telling myself, “You’re safe. Don’t be scared.” If I’m reminded by trauma, I don’t think, “You just had a bad dream; you’re okay now.” These thoughts are very foreign, even as they come naturally when I’m talking to someone else.
I realize that, while those maladaptive habits made me feel like I was taking care of myself, I really don’t take good care of myself. I’m not kind or understanding; I tend to enable or bully myself instead. Instead of grieving in a healthy way, I tend to wallow and feel sorry for myself. I tend to hate people, write people off, and have a victim mentality. I drive myself right off the cliff, into the ocean, and just drown in it from these ultimately harmful ways I’ve learned to take care of myself.
…It’s understandable, when I think about it, that I learned to treat myself this way. Children don’t always pick the best things for themselves, especially when abused, and my abusers often used those same things I’ve learned to do for myself to make themselves feel like they’re good parents after all. A lot of these behaviors were either taught or groomed into me by my abuse. I also was spiritually abused to see my submitting to abuse as being “self-sacrificial” and “humble” (as well as “forgiving” and “honoring my elders”), a long-honored Christian virtue.
There’s hope, isn’t there? I’ve learned good ways to take care of myself apart from these things. I’d learned about things I can eat/avoid to help my brain health; trauma and abuse, particularly non-physical abuse, does a lot of neurological damage, and I also have a family history of things like dementia. While my list of people I turn to has gotten drastically smaller, I do turn to those few for help. I didn’t give up on going to church altogether; while I’m still overwhelmed at my home parish, I’d started to try other churches where I can sit in the pew and feel okay about it (and even better, feel inspired and encouraged). I’d even turned off the internet, put away the cookies, and tried something else. I’d hold my bokken, make some tea with honey, wrap that shawl a friend gave me around my shoulders, etc.
There’s just one bad habit in particular that continues to thwart me. No matter how old I get, I’m still helpless against it, whether it’s complete numbness and/or intense fear that drives me to do it. It’s very common for abuse victim/survivors to have these unhealthy urges and compulsions, often driven by fears. Sometimes it’s fear of emotions, fear of natural feelings that happen inside just by way of biological design. Sometimes it’s some insecurity, wanting something to mean more or less due to the harm we’ve suffered. More on this in another study, though; I think it deserves its own thing.
Emotions can help, or they can hurt; same goes for other unbidden things like thoughts or reflexes. It depends on what we do with them that makes them “cancerian or cancerous”. We don’t have to be drowning all the time. We don’t have to be frozen all the time. We can weather the waves and the storms, find a way to move without wind, and make our way through the darkness and fog when the stars are hidden from view. Whatever your emotional weakness or instability may be (and there really is no shame in having one), it may help to do some introspection, alone and with another, like a friend and/or therapist. It’s so hard to see sometimes, when we go too far out from the shore.
Maybe the answer to my emotional instability is learning how to comfort myself in a kind and healthy manner, even (especially) in those desperate moments. Maybe I need more lessons on self-care. In the meantime, I’ll keep creating, giving word, color, and shape to these emotions. It clears the fog and shadows that make everything look all the more frightening and threatening.
When I do that, I can live with my emotions as something less of a cancer.