Someone once told me, “The proper response to ‘How are you doing, today?’ should never actually be how you’re doing. No one who asks that really wants to know how you’re doing. Just say ‘fine’ so you can both move on with your lives.”
At the time I heard this, I was well into adulthood, and though I hadn’t put so fine a point on it, I already lived by this mentality for a long time. I have a tendency to be very reserved with things I’m struggling through or fighting with. There are lots of reasons for that, I suppose. I could say that I do it because I don’t like people to see my weakness, I could say I don’t open up because I’m afraid of being hurt in my time of vulnerability, I could say a hundred things – all of them justified. But whatever the reason, if you think something is bothering me and you ask me about it, you’re more likely to get a scowl (or a grin) and a “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?” than an honest answer.
When Daniel was diagnosed with Lymphoma at 29, I became a pillar of cement. Troubled as I was, no one was the wiser. When our son Teaghan was born 10 weeks early at a stocky 3 lbs, 2 oz – and put on breathing machines, and diagnosed with hydrocephalus and intra-ventricular hemorrhaging – the neonatal therapist decided to spend a lot of time with me, to make sure I was alright. We spent our time discussing good books, Irish culture, and anything else that wasn’t about the situation I was dealing with regarding my son. I pride myself on being a good liar in this way. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been literally having a fight with Daniel while on a team in City of Heroes, and none of my teammates (except, perhaps, one or two of my closer friends) could even tell anything was amiss.
All in all, it’s very unusual for me to discuss my problems, or things that I’m going through, or – God help me – my feelings, with even my closest of friends. I’ve lived on the mentality that:
a) I’m a big girl and no one needs to know how effected I am. I can handle it.
b) If you burden your friends, you soon won’t have any.
While I tend to feel that this is true, there seems to be one big flaw in my theory – God does not recommend it. Over and over in the Bible, the writers keep bringing up things like brotherhood, community, and encouragement. We should all have a circle of people that we trust to confide in, cry with, laugh with, and pray with. And that seems pretty attractive on the surface, right?
As a sometimes-cynic, it’s easy for me to feel that people who’ve got all of their shit together don’t need encouragement and uplifting conversations. Why would they? It might be nice to have someone reaffirm you’re doing everything right, but it’s not necessary. So does this really serve a person who isn’t, to some extent, messed-up? On the other hand, nobody has their shit together all the time – and how can you be encouraged in your time of trouble if you don’t tell your friends, your neighbors, or your community, what the crap is going on in your life?
Not surprisingly, the Bible addresses this in several places.
1 Corinthians 14:26 says that when we come together, everyone has something insightful to bring to the table. Everyone has their hymns, lessons, revelations, interpretations and so on, and that all of those things should be used to uplift. This seems to imply that we should share with one another our sufferings and our joys, if for no other reason than to be uplifted and encouraged with external perspective. Also, because it’s kind of a like a talent show, and who doesn’t love a talent show?
Proverbs 27:17 says that iron sharpens iron, but one man sharpens another. To me, this seems to imply that our minds and hearts are like blades that can’t be kept in prime condition unless they’re properly treated and maintained – and occasionally see the grinding stone of other people. Now that metaphor really works for me, because the thought of what a blade has to go through to be forged, and later honed, and then eventually maintained doesn’t seem like a “painless” process for the blade.
It seems about as unpleasant as letting people see how vulnerable and. . . soft. . . I can be. Just saying that in this blog makes me cringe, and I know I’m among friends who aren’t going to use that information to start forging their own “blade cutter” now that they know that my mettle has a weak point (or several, in the spirit of complete honesty). And if I’m uncomfortable saying it here, you can imagine how much worse it can get.
The idea that God wants us to open up to people is also supported by Hebrews 3:13. That verse calls us to exhort one another every day, so long as that day is called “today”, so that none of us can become hardened to the deceitfulness of sin. That’s a heady idea, and some people might be put off by the idea of “sin” in general, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. I think that God is saying, here, that we have blind spots on to our own vices, faults, and weaknesses. God says that we need to have people in our lives that love us enough to call us on our crap, preferable before we make asses of ourselves to God and the whole world. How can our friends, our family know when we’re veering off “the path” if we don’t open up to them? Isn’t having a friend give you a “heads-up” better than letting your issue become obvious enough to be seen everybody, close to you or otherwise?
It seems to me that “bad” is like a cancer – you want to catch it early, before the tumor gets all its little roots in everything. In Hebrews, the author (presumably Paul) warns against becoming “hardened” to bad actions – of losing our sensitivity to the point that we no longer know we’re doing anything wrong. That’s why we share our feelings with people we love and trust. Without people you trust acting as our early warning system, it becomes really easy to fall into a place where you can’t even see how hardened you’ve become. Eventually you’ll begin to resent other people for their “judgment”, instead of recognizing their concern. If you’ve haven’t built a circle of friends and family that you can open yourself up to, then it becomes the difference between having a support group of folks trying to help you keep your feet, and being assaulted by a bunch of judgmental nags.
So, I get it. I need to open up to people. Groovy. The only problem with this grand idea is that it’s positively horrifying.
I am not a good person – and while I pretend otherwise, I’m not a strong person. I don’t want people to know this about me, but I want people to love me. Can love come without understanding the good and the bad within a person? I don’t think so. If all you see is the mask of good someone wears, how can you feel anything but betrayed, or lied to, when that mask inevitably slips?
Let’s keep the hard questions coming –
How can someone who is vulnerable, and afraid of being hurt, be expected to take it on faith that the people they are opening up to aren’t going to hurt them further? How do you reassure them? How do you convince them that it’s safe? “Oh honey, Jesus went through much worse. You’re already sad inside, why not just let it out?” That logic may have appeal to a relatively happy person – who really just wants to help – but not so much appeal when you’re the one on the verge of broken. . . when one more betrayal or stab would be more than you could bear.
So am I arguing for or against opening up? The Bible seems to imply you should build -and maintain – close relationships with people so that you can, together, forge a support system, not only for yourself but for them as well. Does that mean that I can just discard my complete phobia of exposing myself, in my good and my bad times, to the people around me? That’s easier said than done – it’s a phobia. How do people like me get over this?
This post has asked lots of questions, and I don’t have any of the answers to them, I’m afraid. I don’t assume you reader-type-peoples out there have any more of the answers than I do. I’m sure we all have masks we wear, things we keep back or prefer to deal with in private. I’m just afraid. Afraid of what people will think, afraid of how bad it will hurt when I break down the wall, afraid that once I open the door I’ll never be able to retreat behind a smarmy grin and a stoic, unaffected, wickedly-awesome demeanor again.
I’d like to leave you, reader-type-peoples, with a quandary to cap off all my vaguely-confession ranting. How do you feel exposing your thoughts and feelings to the people in your life? Do you have a group that makes you feel comfortable exposing yourself, as it were? Have you ever felt that you were doing something wrong – but you were dreadfully afraid of telling people about it, for fear of judgment from your circle? I would very like to hear your thoughts. While you’re writing them I will strive to think of a more clever name for you guys besides “reader-type-peoples”.