A few days ago I was introduced to a children’s book called Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang. Lena and I liked it so much that we did a video reading of it for our grandchildren on YouTube. It is a simple book, the story of a monkey named Jim who is grumpy (the reader is not told why). All of Jim’s friends in the animal kingdom try to cheer him up and get him to practice behaviors that will make him look less grumpy. Even though he tries these activities, his constant refrain is “Grumpy? Me? I’m not grumpy!” Of course, in the end, he acknowledges his grumpiness as he and his friend Norman come to terms with their need to just be grumpy for now.
Despite all my decades of ministry, my years as a father, husband and friend, my many opportunities to counsel people thorough life’s joys and crises—I’m not that great with feelings. I don’t always think that I have a right to my feelings. I don’t express them very well, and so (as you might guess) many of these feelings come out as irritability and grumpiness. Sadly, this is even true when I travel. Grumpiness can happen in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, on the streets of Addis Ababa, or along the coast of West Ireland.
I tried to think of times of irritability and anger while on the road. A few thoughts came to mind. I have a vague recollection of frustration wandering the streets of Rome, looking for a convent that we were to sleep at near the Vatican. Our maps were hard to read and it was the early days of using our phone GPS. We were lost. Last September, I was a more than a bit irritable when an anticipated bike ride in Ireland turned into a long, unexpected walking climb (with bike) along the Cliffs of Moher. (I know, I know—“rough life—get a grip, Jim.” I’m not proud of this stuff!)
Even on our Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 2018 I had moments of grumpiness. Here is a quote from my blog on October 8th:
Today was one of those days of weakness. We chose an alternativo route and things ended up taking longer than I had hoped. My ankles hurt. The wind was cold. We were alone on much of the alternative path. What was to be a short day turned our a bit longer (somewhere around 15 to 17 miles). Along the path there was a sign painted with some graffiti that read, “think of 10 things you are grateful for.” I was too frustrated at the time to take a picture of the sign…
Frankly, I remember resenting the sign, though I later took its advice. As with life in general, there are so many possible sources of grumpiness on the road. Hunger. Tiredness. Getting lost. Not being able to communicate. Differences with a travel companion. Homesickness. Fear. Feeling foolish. When I think of travel, I often think of it as an escape from the day-to-day. What I have learned is that I cannot escape many aspects of myself. I especially cannot escape my my emotions. Grumpy monkey indeed.
Spiritual Practice: Noticing Emotions
When I think of our travels I can recall all sorts of emotions. Joy. Fear. Delight. Disappointment. Gratitude. Indecision. Resentment. Passion. Suspicion. Confidence. Worry. Optimism. My problem is not that I don’t feel all these things, it is just that I don’t identify them. FrankIy, I have a limited emotional vocabulary. But what better time to develop those emotional muscles than when traveling?
If travel is equivalent to adventure, maybe that adventure can be an emotional one as well. I like how Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön puts it:
There is a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable…A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. (The Wisdom of No Escape, p. 3)
Curiosity…wouldn’t that be a good way to live life? Bitter and sweet…perhaps it is important to taste the whole of life. A life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice? I know that is what I need. If noticing the emotions I feel can get me there—I’m willing to give it a try.