Yesterday, tears sprang to my eyes when I caught my younger son’s profile. He’s days from being twelve, and it’s a rare day that I don’t wipe a tear while glancing at the curve of his still-childlike cheeks or while sneaking an illicit sniff of his not-yet-teen neck. It’s intoxicating, his last months or (oh, please!) years of childhood. I savor each snuggle as if it is possibly the last for at least a while. (Because as the mom of a 16-year-old, I know that one will be the last, or at least the last before they become as rare as an uninterrupted phone call.)
Yesterday’s tears were the norm for me. No, I’m not depressed. The existential angst that hovered so close in the winter blew away by April. Now washed in the warmth of summer, I tend to see the world in less dark, foreboding terms, and hope becomes a closer companion. But still, the tears spring forth at their own whim. It’s not depression. Sometimes it is sadness, sometimes joy, sometimes just the rush of emotion that comes with change. It’s a bit unpredictable and sometimes unnerving. And it is wholly me.
When describing me to one of his friends, my dear friend referred to me as intense. Whether the raised eyebrow was seen or simply heard through the silence on the phone, I don’t recall, but he has since switched to the adjective ‘passionate,’ which seems to be taken by others as ‘intense, but in a good way.’ My mother’s word for it was ‘dramatic,’ although I imagine many parents of girls say that at some point or another. And while it wasn’t the word used in my youth about me, I’d add ‘sensitive’ to the list. I just can’t recall a time where I didn’t feel like every nerve was exposed.
Intense. Passionate. Sensitive. The interior life behind what can sometimes be a jarring outer appearance is simply what I’ve had from the start. Having children brought it up a notch. Transitioning to parenting and homeschooling solo amped it up a bit more. (I am chronically overwhelmed by the amazing responsibility of shepherding my young.) Being in the forty-somethings kicked it all a bit higher.
But the baseline was high. As a child, I found my emotions and imagination often overcoming me. Send to my room for a relatively minor offense (Okay, talking back. My mouth has always been my nemesis.), I’d work myself to frantic tears, sure I was unloved and unwanted and terribly misunderstood, despite no objective evidence to back that up. Dramatic? Perhaps on the outside. But the interior experience was excruciatingly painful.
By my teens, my intensity centered around debate with others outside of my home. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to add that this habit of defending my position with vigor and passion was not always well appreciated by others. And honestly, I didn’t do it well. It likely cost me some friendships while cooling some others.
Come graduate school, I found I could sink some of that energy into my studies. Since then, academics and facts have proved refuge when the emotional temperature rises too high. I don’t mean I escape the tears that threaten to fall when queen anne’s lace waves in a field, taking me back to summer camp by looking up statistics on the spread of this year’s flu epidemic. I mean, that wouldn’t help. But in general, having an object of intense intellectual pursuit — writing, teaching, medicine, whatever — somehow brings me some overarching peace. I know that when I’m floundering — when I’m not focused on something larger — I find far more tears and emotional wanderings at the small stuff.
So I anchor my passion in passion, find a bit of respite from my intensity in intensely pursing something else. Ironic? Perhaps. Escapism? No. Even fully focused, or at least as fully focused homeschooling mom working a few jobs and flying solo can be, my emotions spring up without bidding and often when inconvenient. But there is some tempering effect to being strongly mentally engaged.
I’ve also become better at weathering the emotions and intensity. As a child and even into adulthood, those tugs at the heart could be all-consuming, and trying to fight them only made them stronger. Only in the past handful of years have I learned to accept these intensities as legitimate and even positive parts of me. On the emotional end, that means letting the feeling come and fully acknowledging it. I name it. Fear. Love. Sadness. Joy. Hope. Hope dashed. Whatever it is, naming it starts me down a better road, for fighting the feelings (and tears) rarely helps and often makes me feel powerless and weak.
After naming it, I do best when I just let it flow. It generally passes on its own in short time when unimpeded by my clumsy attempts to stop a waterfall of emotion with my bare hands. I try not to judge it. Tearing up at a tender moment on The West Wing? Let it go. My son’s unlikely to notice, and if he does, he’s likely to just remember that mom does that sometimes. Angst building after an encounter with my ex? Naming the anger starts me down a better path than trying to pretend all is well. My desire to lash out with my too-sharp tongue wanes quickly when I can just remind myself that anger in itself never killed the one who was angry.
It’s helped to be walking closely with a dear friend with a deep emotional life and a naturally calm exterior. While the strength and height of my reactions may surprise him at times, he knows what it is to feel deeply and accepts my innate intensity, tears and all. I’m not sure the tenderness between us lightens my emotional load, however. My sensitivity and intensity have gained another nidus of focus. One more person to love adds a thousand more opportunities for unbidden tears of love, joy, wonder, sadness, and general intensity. It seems worth that price.
Given over forty years of intensity and passion rest behind me, I’m sure that whatever years remain will be paved with the same. I’d not change it if I could, despite the fatigue that level of intensity can bring, for it is in the intense passion of living and loving that I find my raison d’être. While I have my moments of less-than-graceful responses to the movements of my heart and mind, overall, I’m learning to live with my intensity, to form friendship with it even. It is a good part of what makes me feel intensely alive and reminds me of how deeply I can love. So I’m intensely passionate. Or passionately intense. And that’s okay.