I picked up A Man Called Ove. The back cover was pretty nondescript. The most I could make of it was the story chronicled the life of a grumpy old man. Doing the intuitive counseling work I do, I know that everyone has a story. Bitter people aren’t born bitter. By the time we’ve lived 60 or so years, our attitude and even our posture reflects how our experiences have formed us. If this main character was grumpy, I wanted to learn why. What had happened to him?
Ove grew up in the 1940’s, an era when people tried to hide their emotions as much as humanly possible, long before talking about your feelings became the healthy thing to do. Ove learned to express love and care through his actions, not his words. His words may come out harsh and insensitive, but his actions prove that he has an enormous heart and caring soul, even if he’d never admit it to anyone because he’s uncomfortable with the attention. He turns away if a tear dares roll out of his eye, and quickly wipes it away. God forbid anyone think he is weak from being too “soft” with his feelings.
It was known as the Stiff Upper Lip. And while some of us may have come a long way in expressing our feelings, and learning how to learn and grow from our emotions instead of shun them, the bottom line is painful emotions hurt. When we deny that truth and pretend everything is okay, we’re denying a big part of our collective story here.
Ove is not much different than those of us who believe that being spiritual means also maintaining that Stiff Upper Lip. You know the people who are hurting terribly but keep sputtering out positive thoughts, as if on autopilot, afraid to admit that the pain is engulfing them. Afraid to admit they feel angry because, well, that’s not a very spiritual emotion, is it? Spiritual emotions are peaceful, loving, kind. So where does that leave room for our human experience? God forbid a spiritual person admit they feel depressed. As if the mere description of an unfriendly emotion had the power to take any glimmer of positive energy away. Which isn’t true! Emotions are fluid like ocean waves, not static like brick unless we choose to stop their flow. Let’s be honest about this world we’re currently living in. In our lifetime death can’t be avoided. We will experience at least one loss, if not many, of those we love and who have loved us. And that simple, undeniable fact leaves this world with an inconsolable sadness. While prayer and positive thinking can greatly lift the burden of that grief, nothing can cure a separation that can only be cured through physics. We are in a physical world, and they no longer are. No cure for that. No matter how different we may all seem on the surface, we can all relate to this shared experience. None of us are truly alone in feeling that sadness. But that sadness doesn’t need to define us. It can become the driving force to do good. As we see with posthumous charities and implementation of new laws, we have the power to turn loss into victories, creating a long-lasting legacy that makes a difference.
If you’ve been hurt, disappointed, wounded, you have every right to those negative emotions. Those emotions protect us from building a strong wall of apathetic detachment that would negate our ability to empathize with others. How can we have compassion for another in pain if we have not feel the depths of it ourselves? How can we feel comfortable sitting with another who is suffering and just needs our comforting presence if we aren’t familiar with sitting in that saddening silence ourselves?
Negative emotions aren’t bad. They aren’t a sign of spiritual weakness or a lack of faith. They are a human reaction to feeling pain. They only become toxic when they linger. One glass of wine may not hurt you, but drinking an entire bottle every day for the next four decades will. The same holds true for those painful emotions. Experience them. Be real with them. What if you don’t push them away? What if you choose to love yourself through it instead? What if you choose to allow yourself to be loved through it? Instead of damning negativity, what if we embrace it as part of our intuitive ability to experience the energy of emotions in this world? What a gift that we can feel anything at all. To go through this life numb of all feeling is not living. It’s not participating. And it’s no way to help anyone else.
Ove’s story isn’t afraid to admit darkness and cruelty exist in this world. Admitting it doesn’t take Ove’s power of goodness away, in fact, I think it fuels it. His story isn’t afraid to admit that even the very strong feel they just can’t go on sometimes, and not necessarily because they want to give up. They miss their loved ones who died. They feel worn out from years upon years of painful experiences, and loss. They aren’t condemning themselves, they are admitting they simply feel tired and ready to go home to heaven. Ove’s character proves these thoughts don’t make you weak, they make you human.
You know what else Ove teaches us? The desire to help others is what drives us to go on, because that’s why God put us here. This world can be harsh, and our stories will be sprinkled with both happiness and pain. Living here isn’t about controlling every single event that happens to us, thinking we can avoid pain at all costs, or denying that it takes a very strong soul to even be here. Living here is about remaining true to our purpose of making this world better in whatever way we can before we leave it. Living here is about love. And that’s why we get hurt. Because we all want and need to be loved, and when we’re not, we feel hurt. Love is really the only truth our souls know.
Ove’s optimistic wife believes in destiny. She tells Ove, “All the roads you walk in life, in one way or another, lead to what has been predetermined for you.” Having experienced her own deep heartaches, retreating to grieve and emerging calm and carrying on, she says, “You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away.”