Tucked above a cove between Loue and Foye on the south Cornish coast lies the tiny hamlet of Llansillos. Though still not much more than a few cottages and a small farm it is, as it has been for centuries, dominated by a vast church, quite out of proportion for such a sparsely populated place. Wondering what this outsized building was doing in such a tiny village so far from anywhere else, I wandered in and sat among the generous pews of the three wide sections that comprised it. There, in the quiet, I began to think about the different people who may have made their way across the fields and down the lanes over the centuries to sit here each week, while some dusty parson mumbled on in the background; fishermen, shepherds, cowmen, carpenters, farriers, farmers, landowners all gathering to meet their needs for entertainment, for community, for the exploring and the expression of their mental and spiritual health.
So it was that I began to wonder about all the thoughts of hope and peace and joy and gratitude and love that those who will have sat where I was sitting will surely have had. Warm thoughts that consoled their spirits and strengthened their minds for the week ahead.
But other thoughts too.
For if they were anything like me, and perhaps like you, their minds would also have turned to darker feelings. Feelings, perhaps, of regret, of sadness, of anger, of shame, of sorrow, of guilt, of loneliness. Feelings that were hard to bare and persistent in their repetition even if not present at every turn of the day’s page. Feelings that were just as human as the more uplifting half of their experience.
It made me start to wonder whether, in our modern age, there isn’t an illusion which suggests the idea that we should all - always - be happy. That what grown up, successful, properly functioning people do is live without any serious bumps in the road and that to feel anxious, to feel frightened, to feel sad, somehow blots our copy book to leave red marks on our report card and declare us to be less than we ought to be. From our own social media posts to each other, to the message of the celebrity culture in which we live, the idea seems to be promoted that all must be wonderful, exciting, awesome, wicked, amazing and that not to be having a super interesting time, or have something quirky or funny going on, is to be living less than our best life.
Yet troubling emotions and mundane experiences have their purpose. If it didn’t hurt when you picked up the metal handle to your hot frying pan you’d burn yourself much worse. If it wasn’t scary sauntering across the M1 at rush hour you’d get run over. Though none of us like to feel anxious, for instance, though none of us like to feel sad, they are emotions that serve the purpose of warning us against possible danger or teaching us why bonds of affiliation matter.
Troubling emotions are inevitable and can be helpful just as the ordinary and the everyday provide an essential and reassuring backdrop onto which the fabric of our life can be woven.
What we hope, though, is that our experiences of more painful feelings are moderate and short-lived and that when they aren’t, when they get stuck in a trough of depth and length, it can be important, and so helpful, to give space and time to the mark they leave on us so that we can find a way out from them. Psychotherapy and counselling can provide that space.
About a hundred years ago an Austrian poet called Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “if we only arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience”. Its maybe not the most popular suggestion in a world that’s bolted to convenience and ease but perhaps it offers a wisdom which tells us not only that struggle can’t be avoided but that, when it comes, it has purpose, too.