Thoughts From the Village: on Emotions and Bulgarian Stoicism

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Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
Oh, crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
Mike and the Mechanics — The Living Years
1984 — this is when I entered the world
this is when I entered my home

We have been home for a couple a weeks now. August is always hot here, often nearing the forties; sometimes, like the year before, even reaching beyond that. This vacation is no exception; after suffering through our first week when the gauge hit thirty-nine almost daily, we can finally take a breather — it is cooler now, and there is a pleasant breeze almost every day…

As I write this sitting under the shade of the vine, in the comfortable nest of my old home, I leisurely behold the sights of my past. Looking at the old, familiar street — the walls, the fences, the people, and the clear sky of my childhood — I feel the old, familiar sense of…what do I call this…?

A sense of feeling less, and being less; a kind of suppression and a block to being fully alive; something like a dam, made to be a barrier to strong emotions — the good ones as well as the ‘bad’ ones — a wall, erected against their expression…

I see my old friend: one of the oldest, truest comrades I have ever had, going in and out of his house — but why is it that I do not feel the joy which I have when I am away from him and think of our next meeting? Why do I feel so numb and unable to express how I really feel on the inside? Why am I so reserved; why do I always hold back?

And I know that, just like me, my friend also feel the same way.

Perhaps it is the culture here; we have all been brought up like that. We are all gravitating between unspoken love, hidden hatred, and well-controlled joy; we are all, to a degree, living a life which is stifled life. It should come as no surprise then, that I do not know how to live from the heart — that heart which feels so much and has so much to give, yet is often silent.

I do not know whether it is a cultural thing, like the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British; I am no expert in nationality and culture. But I have become a student of my own life and, after years of one painful and glorious discovery after another, I have learned a thing or two about myself and those around me.

On this little quiet street, in the green Thracian lowlands, me and my few peers grew up as happy as any group of average children could be, perhaps even more, yet expressing our true emotions was never trully a part of it all; it was always that missing, unmentioned, and seemingly unimportant part of life. Later, when we entered youth, we drank and celebrated young age as most young people did; then we embraced and kissed each other, but those displays of our affection toward one another were never carried into the new day — we left them behind, abandoned and hidden in the dark smoky corners of the old restaurant, waiting to be remembered and picked up again the next weekend. The restaurant, just like ourselves, came alive only on Friday and Saturday night; it became a nightclub then, and the old Soviet-style interior took on a colourful and glorious glow, along with our own neglected selves.

But our joy could never last.

What we felt while we were basking in the fleeting light of our short-lived glory, we could not take with us; what we were when we were most alive and most able to express our hearts — their nobility and beauty, but also their ugliness, their sickness and their pain — we could not be permanently.

This is why we so chase our addictions — the addictions we all have, for we have all been born into a world that has no room for our true selves; a world that offers no fulfilment for our deepest desires.

And so, even after years of facing my old pain and offering the most secret places of my heart to be healed, I am finding myself locked into the old patterns still, in the days when I am too weak or too tired. During those times, like the proverbial dog, I am readily returning back to my own vomit; back to the dirt and the death from which I have been lifted. I know the river well; the old river which, flowing for decades within my soul, has eroded a deep bed for itself. And since the direction of its flow has been my path for decades, I do not need to do much; I only need to simply let myself be carried by the waters, back to the familiar, back to the effortless comfort, back into the mire of my past.

Being home always brings me on the bank of that river, as close as I have ever been; for this is where the river first flowed, and this is where its deadly, wicked course was first set. Yes — deadly, for in my life, like every other life, there are unseen forces that seek my destruction; those were the hidden powers that once preyed upon the child…

I must make it clear here that my parents, like most, did their best to raise me in a good and healthy way. Sadly, like me, they are broken human beings, and, back in those times, their best was rarely enough to protect me from that which they themselves have not been protected…

 

* * *

 

While we were in my wife`s hometown — a little, charming spa town called Varshets — we met a spectacular young woman, and she quickly became our friend. This woman, who had, until recently, a professional volleyball player, had traveled the world and seen its wonders; she had also traveled her inner world, and explored its light and its darkness…

She was tall and lean and fit, glowing with the sunshine of Israel where she lived; she was radiating something else, too…

She was a warrior who had fought many battles; a heroine who had found and reclaimed a great deal of her truest self, and for this reason she was calm, free, and happy, totally unashamed to be — simply be — herself.

It was this — the power of her presence, this unhindered being — that so impacted both me and my wife, and made us want to know her better; this was also what encouraged us to keep walking the path of redemption, and not let the constant battle steal the joy of the present moment.

I am bringing her into this story because, during one of our conversations in the swimming pool, she put words to, and answered an unspoken question that had formed in my mind ever since we began our vacation.

‘Most of us around here,’ she remarked in her fiercely passionate way, ‘ might not abuse our children physically, but we crush them with our words!’

She was right: words that have the power to darken the eternal glow of the child`s heart; they can bring shame, worthlessness, or inadequacy to the soul so early in life, while the little one depends on the parents’ words for self-worth and identity as much as the body depends on oxygen and food for its survival.

Stop crying…

You are such a baby…

Behave — or else!

You should be ashamed of yourself!

And even:

You are worthless

We have all heard at least some of these; we have all felt their bitter sting. And we  have all been changed as a result of their message.

 

* * *

 

Although words have the power to change and shape the soul by bringing life or death to it, there is something more dangerous and deadly than words. Dangerous, for it is much harder to discover, and deadly, for it does its work in secret and, if left unaddressed for long, can shorten and even abort even the most promising life.

This is the unspoken coldness which creeps in from our parents to us while we are still young and helpless; this is the voiceless whisper in their eyes that tells us we must conform to this world — their world — and be less, simply because they have become less, and do not know any other way of being. Perhaps they have also felt threatened by the brave dreamer, by the little beauty and the young hero in their child, whose bright eyes speak of immortality and tell of a life that is too wild and too free — too eternal — to be manageable.

The Stoic-like mindset which me and most of my peers have inherited has indeed been a result from words — mainly the words of our mothers and grandmothers, for the women in our culture are far more free and unashamed outspoken than the men. It has also been a product of that unseen and unheard message which, like poisonous fumes or deadly sickness, once spread over us from our fathers` silent eyes…

And we all became like them, in one way or another — seemingly connected to those around us; never alone, yet lonely and silently suffering inside, bearing the curses, the wounds and the scars of all the generations past; the unhealed and unredeemed pain of the grandfathers who once groaned inwardly but could not make a sound as the heavy boot of the Sultan crushed their neck.

Today, men here die quickly, one after another, long before their time. Some are drowned in alcohol — their only escape from the pain; some are lost in sudden or gradual madness…

Most of them, however, the strong, upright, working-class people like our fathers, simply fade away; their once strong and powerful selves slowly erode with the merciless onslaught of time which steals their dreams and hopes. Then comes the final blow — normally, a sickness of some kind, an affliction which has been laying dormant for years, waiting for the weakness of spirit to set the stage and open the door for the destruction of the body. This murderous work is often done by the cancer which is so prevalent here, especially among the men; this most feared terror of our time kills, steals, and destroys with an alarming rate in this green, fertile place. Yet, we must know that in too many cases, maybe even most of them, what is seen is conceived by what is unseen — and the sickness of my people is no exception. Think of a broken spirit, too shameful to be acknowledged; of old pain and past heartbreak that are too painful to live with; imagine a lifetime of denial and repression of the true self and its feelings…

Take the strong emotions of grief, or better yet — anger, which has been cut off and stifled, pressed back down in the soul during childhood, only to surface later as a mysterious condition of weakness, lifelessness, or some other living death…

And you will see why we suffer as we do; you will perhaps learn something of your own suffering too.

But you do not need to flee from it as the people of my homeland do; you do not need to seek numbing pleasures and fleeting comforts as most people in the world do.

For I am here to tell you:

The way up is down and the way out is in. Go against the flow of the old river; turn against your own deep patterns; rise up and fight, even though you do not see your foe…

Do not fear your pain, for it hides a great treasure; indeed, it was once sent as a weapon, as a veil, to cover and silence your true, glorious heart; it is the device forged against you and the expression of your truest self…

There are diamonds in the dirt; there is new life and joy to be found, only by those who are brave or too tired to live in the shadows of grey, compromised existence…

You are brave, I know; and I know you are tired — tired of the endless search and the endless charade. Do not despair, for it is now time to find that lost treasure; it is time to enter the battle…

 

Do not fear.

You are not alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . .

 

 

 

 

 

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