No Feelings—No Aliveness: A Cautionary Tale for Us Human Beings

Over the holiday season I got to see the full length animated film, Song of the Sea, by award-winning director Tomm Moore. This film is a contemporary tale based on the traditional Irish (and Scottish) folk tradition of the selkie–a woman who is half human and half seal. In this version, two children, Ben and Saorise (the last of the selikes) discover a secret about their mum (who’s been missing for several years) and go on an adventure that at first is just about getting home (after being taken to the city by their grandmother) and ultimately is about saving the faeries and, in effect, themselves and their family.

In the course of their adventures, there is a cautionary tale that stands out for me as epic, archetypal and very much about the “work” of Nonviolent Communication. As the children make their way home, they find that numerous “fairy people” are “frozen” solid, all or in part, like rocks. Eventually, the meet the witch Macha who attempts too to “freeze” the children—in her castle, she has hundreds of others turned into stone, and an equal number of glass bottles. You might think she has stolen or bottled their souls, of all those turned to stone. In effect, she has–since each of these glass bottles hold the feelings of each of the stone-frozen people.

While this might seem an obvious metaphor–lose your feelings,  loose your aliveness—the story becomes even richer, and more nuanced and empathic. While Macha could be judged as simply an evil and controlling witch, determined to turn everyone to stone around her, we find out that, poignantly, all of this is an effort to end suffering. Her son was suffering so much, she could not bare to see his pain, so turned him into a mountain. Wanting others to have the same liberation, she turns each person she can into a rock–bottling their feelings (literally). She promises the children that they too will be free of pain if she let’s her help them. (And iit is striking that the same actor also plays the voice-over of their grandmother– who takes them to the City against their wishes, telling them that is a better place for children to be–is the same actor who plays the witch. It seems every day people–not only supernatural fairy witches–sometimes are unable to hear the feelings of others or their experiences.)

Luckily, the children are very clear. They want their feelings. They want to be alive! And in the end (warning- spoiler!) they free all those who were turned to rock, and free Macha. When practicing self-empathy and supporting others via coaching and at workshops and trainings, I find this pattern too: we can avoid our feelings, especially “old” or “dark” feelings. They can seem overwhelming or scary. We want to avoid suffering–and can associate feelings with suffering. And yet those who are “shut down” in their feelings are, I find, usually depressed or very angry (two sides or extremes of missing self-connection). When disconnected from our feelings, we in effect do turn to stone. Only by honoring and being fully with our feelings (observing them– a form of the first step of the NVC model) do we become fully alive and aware.

In effect, this is what we are learning in NVC practice– how to notice our feelings, be with them, see what they tell us about our needs, and then how this awareness can further empower us. I believe very urgently in this work, and this practice, since I believe that as a species we have developed technologically beyond our emotional intelligence. If we are to survive and thrive –and other species with us–we need urgently to learn to navigate our feelings, using them to light our way.

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