Ann’s friend Carrie was feeling overwhelmed with life. She had just gotten the news that her father was dying, and she was off on a cross-country flight in the morning to be at his side. As they talked, Carrie was aware that she had three young children who would never really know their grandfather. She told Ann of her grief and her struggle to know how she would say goodbye to a very significant person in her life. She wondered aloud to Ann how she would be able to do all that needed to be done in the coming months. She sat quietly and Ann sat with her, unsure of finding words that would soothe. The quiet was finally broken when Carrie began to weep softly, and Ann touched her hand to say, “I feel with you; I am with you.”
Carrie had a rough couple of years, struggling to know how to grieve and to give herself permission to “need.” Her life demanded it: she had responsibilities that couldn’t wait, and she decided to lean heavily on various family members and friends like Ann for the help they offered. Often she felt self-conscious about the level of her need. Carrie tended to associate need with failure, and in her childhood family, failure had meant rejection. She was terribly afraid to need people in the way that she did. It looked to her like everyone else “handled things better.”
It is not easy to need. Our culture does not accept it well. In Christian circles, “need” can be associated with “not trusting God enough” or with “having unconfessed sin in our lives.” We tend to think that if everything were “okay” with us spiritually, we wouldn’t have the troubles in our lives that bring about our need. But this life is full of struggle, loss, and difficulty. The biblical authors knew this. They didn’t expect this life to be easy. They were waiting for the reward of an “abundant life” in the Kingdom, the Life to come. Notice I Peter 1:3-7:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope…to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials….
There is much loss and sadness in this life. There is physical loss, as when someone dies or moves away. Then there are the more mundane, everyday losses: the loss of a hope or dream, the realization that our bodies are aging, the recognition that this life doesn’t fulfill the promise it holds out to us, the interruption of a relationship when there is a conflict with a loved one, to name just a few. We are encouraged to “be okay,” to “snap out of it,” to “roll with the punches.” All of these sayings have a similar result: they can serve to subtly tell us that to feel pain, sadness, or fear is not okay. And we are more than happy to oblige: it is easy to be talked out of feeling our pain. And we have a lot of help in distancing from our “negative” feelings. We have work, television, the Internet, and all kinds of distractions readily available. We have even constructed religious practices that serve to take us away from feeling our pain. And yet, if we ignore our less positive feelings about life, we begin to believe that the disguise we wear is what is true about us, when in reality it is only a façade, a mask.
Sometimes it is necessary to “put on a mask” and pretend that we are “okay.” For example, sometimes it is important to go to work even when we don’t feel like it, or not to trust someone who is untrustworthy with intimate information. But in the end, if the mask hides us from our real selves or from those who are closest to us, then it can harm us. Our society and our churches ask us to wear masks often. One of the ways we wear a mask is to pretend that we are “up” when, in fact, we are “down.” Sometimes it is appropriate, socially, to say “fine” to the casual “How are you?” However, it is also important that we understand where we are really—inside ourselves. It is important to be vulnerable to our pain with ourselves and with those who care about us. It is important because it is true, and truth is important. Having allowed ourselves to know what is true about our lives, we have the opportunity to trust God with it and to call out to the One who is there. We also have the opportunity to connect with those closest to us and to walk together in the truth.
How do we find our real self, the one underneath the mask, and connect with it? There is no formula. For every person there will be different ways to discover feelings and how to interpret them. Sometimes we will do this alone, sometimes with another person. Too often, however, we overlook our “feeling” information. Because it is uncomfortable or unpopular, we push it away, and when we do, we miss out on essential information for how to trust God and navigate our lives. We often hear the phrase, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” How have we learned that our feelings are wrong? Maybe our feelings are just our feelings—and learning to interpret them can give us valuable information. In this sense, learning to accept and understand our “negative” feelings, rather than being contrary to faith, can actually deepen our faith. We can risk learning who we are and who God is and how to trust Him with our real lives; and in risking this, we find Him to be good, in the very midst of our sorrow.
Almost three years have passed since the conversation Carrie and Ann shared. In those years, Ann has lost her own father as well, and she faces her own grief, with its stages that wax and wane. She sometimes feels isolated in her pain and fear. One day recently she decided she’d like to get out of the house, take a walk, or sip a cup of coffee. She’d been busy lately and hadn’t spent much time with friends. She called someone, then someone else, and found that everyone was out, doing this or that with their scarce weekend time. Then Ann remembered Carrie and called her, too, but she, too, was booked. Ann feigned nonchalance and hung up. As she sat staring at the phone, her tears surprised her. Suddenly her sadness threatened to envelope her. She felt so weak and alone, a feeling she did not relish. She sat. She pondered. She felt. She wept. She had kept these feelings hidden from herself by staying busy, by moving fast. She slowly recognized that she needed more than a walk or a cup of coffee: she needed to connect with a friend. And Ann gradually became aware that Carrie had not heard her real need either, because she had kept it hidden from her as well. She decided to try again.
When Carrie answered the phone, Ann stumbled through the initial pleasantries to the truth, “I wasn’t honest with you a minute ago when I said I was fine. In fact, I’m not doing very well at all—I’m feeling really sad, and I’m missing my dad terribly.” Her voice cracked as the tears returned. “It turns out I didn’t just want to take a walk. I really need a friend. Even so, I understand if you still need to say no, but I wanted you to know what was really going on.”
Carrie responded with heartfelt empathy and without obligation. “Oh, Ann, that’s different. Give me a minute to see what I can do. If I can rearrange things, I will be happy to take a walk. But I might not be able to change my schedule, and if not, please know that I am still so glad that you let me know the real story. That means a lot to me. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
They took a walk, and Ann was vulnerable with Carrie about what she was going through. It was helpful to Ann to lean on her friend, and her feelings didn’t seem as overwhelming afterward. Later, Carrie told Ann what a gift it was to her that Ann had needed her. She had felt so needy so often in the past few years, since the time her father was sick, and she had often felt like she was the only one who ever struggled with life. She had felt that something must be wrong with her that wasn’t wrong with everyone else. Ann’s decision to share her “real self” with Carrie was a way that Ann could have a genuine need met by a friend, generously and graciously. But it was more than that. It was a way for Ann to care about Carrie as well. It was a way she could say to her, “You are not alone either” and “There is not something wrong with you that isn’t wrong with me.”
We all struggle. Because we live in a Christian culture that sees struggle as failure rather than a part of life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes), we communicate without words that something is wrong with us or with our faith if we struggle. As a result, we cannot admit our struggles to one another, and we remain alone in our pain. In the end, the added isolation deepens our hurt.
God became a man—the man Jesus. In His life here, He was the friend to those who were struggling. He did not always deliver them from their difficulty, but he did meet them there. And we follow in his footsteps when we meet one another in our troubles.
In our bewildered, painful, often despairing world there is still the presence of one who comes, who calls, who gives life and light and healing, who is revealed to us in the simplicity of childhood and in the awful desolation of suffering. And as of old, those who respond to his call and allow him to expand their own horizons of meaning, discover in experience who he is. (John Habgood, Making Sense)
This life is full of joy, beauty, hope, suffering, pain, and longing. The bad news is: this life is really hard. The good news is: we are not alone. We have each other, and we have the promise that God has not left us in our sorrow. He has promised to meet us there, and in the end, to get us Home. When we tell each other the truth about ourselves, we encourage one another to walk in truth. In this way we come to know the truth about this life and what it means to trust the God who is there.