June 7, 2020

Don’t Tell Me How To Feel
Trinity Sunday, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

One morning back 40 or so years ago, when I’d been in the adult work force for about 2 weeks, I went into work on the 16th floor of a 41-story downtown office building. I needed to talk to my boss, Judy, about my assignment, and knocked on her closed door. Judy told me to come in; it was clear she had been crying. She motioned me to sit down while she got a Kleenex. A crying boss is . . . awkward.

I’m maybe 25 years old, and I said the first thing that came to my young head: “Don’t be sad, don’t cry. I’m sure it will be OK.” Judy glared over at me and spit out words that stunned me: “Don’t tell me how to feel.” Chagrined, I said nothing. I asked my questions, she answered them, I left. I thought about her words: “Don’t tell me how to feel.” How right she was. I had no idea what was going on in her life, did I? Had she been fired? had a miscarriage? gotten in an accident? I had no idea. I thought about the other thing I said to Judy, “I’m sure it will be OK.” This was not only pure ignorance on my part, since whatever made her cry might not ever be OK – I didn’t know – my motivation had NOT been to make Judy feel better. The person I was taking care of was me. Like I said, a crying boss is very awkward. So, I took care of me by blowing her emotions off.

Judy, with those 6 words, “Don’t tell me how to feel,” taught me more about human relationships than in my 4 years of college psychology classes. We DON’T know what’s going on with other people’s lives. We DON’T know what it’s like FOR them, or what it’s like to BE them. All we can possibly know is what WE are feeling. When we feel like things are awkward, or frightening, or we just don’t understand, we feel afraid or anxious. We DON’T LIKE to feel afraid or anxious. So often, so very, very often, we just say or do whatever we can to make OURSELVES feel better.

Let’s take my benign, simple, sanitary little story and explore the implications in a world where there is, in a pretty classic understatement, a LOT of fear and anxiety going around. Not one of us wants a world where the daily reality is pandemic, protests, and political polarization. Especially we white people are very, very anxious. To take care of ourselves, we tell people of color what we’ve told them for century after century after century: “Stop being sad, stop crying, everything will be OK.” They are telling us whites, they are telling me: DON’T TELL ME HOW TO FEEL. Just like that morning 41 years ago, they are right: I DON’T know what it is like to be a person of color, Black or Brown, in America. I haven’t a clue.

The other thing we all do to feel better is to say, “Hey, that’s happened to me, too,” and we shove off the other person’s problems by talking about ours. So, yes, I’ve had my issues with discrimination. Sure. But not because of the color of my skin. I have not had that experience. So when we white people start making comparisons between our problems and a black person’s, we’re shutting them down, shutting them up, because we do not want to hear about their problems.

The third thing we do is deny of the legitimacy of another’s reality by saying “Yeah, but. . . .” and then throw out some other event or “fact” that is supposed to make the other’s position indefensible. Whenever someone says “Yeah, but . . . .” they’ve stopped listening and are once again attempting to reduce their own fear and anxiety by dismissing another person’s feelings.

The best example is the statement Black Lives Matter. Immediately, to contain our fear and discomfort, we whites counter with “Yeah, but . . . ALL lives matter!” As true as this is, it’s not the point AND WE KNOW IT. Black Lives Matter is a cry of despair and frustration about a reality of systemic bigotry and centuries of oppression that needs to be dismantled, and which an awful lot of whites just don’t want to deal with because deep down we believe that if everyone really is truly equal life will be less wonderful for us.

Today, people of color are asking us whites to please, just listen.
Just listen to what it’s like for them, day in and day out.
Listen, and when we get defensive and uncomfortable, just stay quiet.
This isn’t about us and our anxiety. It’s about them and their reality.
Don’t tell anyone else how to feel.
Don’t tell anyone else everything all be OK.
Don’t tell them anything at all. Listen.

Read the full sermon text HERE.

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