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“Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.”

According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, quoted in the introduction to Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, which we’ve been exploring in the adult Wednesday night class since February and are going to wrap up this month.

After I read Brown’s latest book last fall, I brought the idea to the staff to teach it on Wednesday nights because it felt to me like everyone could use a refresher on the emotions after coming out of the worst of the pandemic.  Immediately everyone agreed.

And so we started this weekly discussion of various emotions and human experiences, over eighty detailed Brown’s book.  We’ve operated from the presumption that all of us need some help with emotional literacy.  This is largely because most of us adults were raised in a culture where you didn’t talk openly about how you were feeling, and instead we were often trained to push our feelings aside.

Fortunately, the culture has shifted.  I’m constantly encouraged by the training on the emotions that my son is receiving in school, including learning about how his feelings are tied to brain states.  If you want to know how the hippocampus or prefrontal cortex or amygdala works and how they connect to your thoughts and feelings, just ask my seven-year-old.

To develop emotional awareness and become more emotionally articulate helps with our mental and spiritual well-being.  These skills also can benefit us when we are in therapy, as we can more accurately identify our feelings to a professional.  The skills also benefit communication in relationships, as we gain the abilities to better listen to one another and understand what we are experiencing.

In our class, we’ve supplemented Brené Brown’s research with thoughts on the emotions from other scholars, philosophers, and poets.  Examples include the work on regret by the theologian Paul J. Griffiths who links it with what he calls the “otherwise attitudes,” all of which desire the world to be otherwise than it is—lament, remorse, contrition, and confession.  Or Buddhist therapist Sameet Kumar’s wisdom on grieving mindfully.  Or Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s advice on how to make better decisions.  Or Aristotle’s description of the various types of anger.

We’ve tried to emphasis new skills and steps to take to better emotional health and well-being, like a simple practice of gratitude or breathing exercises and movements that help to counter anxiety.

Our weekly classes have had very open, very vulnerable conversations about everything from grief and anger to joy and wonder.  People have shared many personal stories.  We have laughed and cried.  This class has been even better and more helpful than I could have ever imagined at the beginning.

Recently I was reading a collection of essays by theologians reflecting on the pandemic, and one of the best was by the American Baptist Chaplain at Harvard, Cody Sanders entitled “Feeling Our Way Through an Apocalypse.”  He begins by pointing out many of the various ways emotions have run high in recent years, and he identifies that the commonality is that the world as we knew it and made sense of it (to the degree we did) has ended, and we’ve all been struggling to make sense of this new world, and thus, have been learning to “feel our way through an apocalypse.”

He most worries that the legitimate fear, anger, and sadness that have dominated our lives might become persistent moods for us, and that to care for ourselves we need to engage in the emotions of wonder, gratitude, and grief.  He writes, “We must cultivate alternative emotional experiences that we can develop within the context of community.”

I felt like his essay properly diagnosed our current human condition and gave great insight on what steps we should take for resilience and good living in this season.  It was also confirming of the experience we’ve had on Wednesday nights this year, of opening up and sharing about our feelings.

I feel like the experience of this class has been transformative.  And I’m now contemplating what other spiritual skills we might explore next.


421 South 36th Street, Omaha Nebraska, 68131
(Located at the corner of 36th and Harney Streets)






First Central Congregational Church