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What is it about this experience that makes us hold on to pretense? What tells us that a lie of a smile is better than honest tears? Why do we hold up our masks and shields against one another, as if we are all armed to annihilate the heart?
Poetics aside, why is vulnerability so damn hard?
The more souls I have the honor of meeting the more certain I am that loneliness is absolutely universal. Some cases of solitary are more clearly seen than others. The homeless man on the street corner knows every curve and dimple of loneliness, as she is the only one who will hold him through the night. The “crazy cat spinster” is another clear example. So is the awkward kid in high school who made more eye contact with the ground than his peers. But in truth, we can all attest to loneliness. I’ve talked to those who are married – who share body, heart, and hearth – but still don’t feel known. There are individuals who have families as big as small cities and continue to feel inexplicably misplaced.
Somehow we can have relationships and still feel untouched.
I have no answers on this one. While I prize authenticity and transparency I rarely let others see my ugly. Often I’ll share once I feel I have a handle on a situation, kind of a retrospective letting people in: Hey yea, I’d totally appreciate your input on this situation that happened three weeks ago, even though I’ve already sort of decided what I’m going to do about it.
There is something utterly terrifying about not having it together. Maybe this is more a personal thing. I don’t like being out of control. And to allow others to see that… well, it just grounds it in reality I suppose. I mean intuitively I may sense that my life is in chaos, but it somehow becomes real once I share it with another. When I speak out loud, it moves from the realm of theory down to the world of things.
Maybe it’s the misplaced belief that I will be rejected for my imperfection. But we’re all hot messes in some way or another, so I don’t really know why we would reject someone for a weakness we all know.
I remember when I first started to grieve.
My father had already been dead for six years; I was a sophomore at Stanford University. I was in the middle of a creative writing class and we were reading a short story about a woman who had lost her mother. It was an ugly story. It was well written with beautiful prose and turns of phrase. But it was raw. Her emotions were all over the page, there was anger and bitterness and absolutely no resolution. Before I knew what was happening my chest began to tighten. I could feel emotions rising into my throat, emotions I had filed away so I could just get by with life, just function. I started to cry. In the middle of a small seminar of fifteen strangers I cried. I didn’t cry in front of my own mother. I excused myself, offering no explanation for the river of tears and snot running down my face. Just packed up my things and left. Once outside I started to sob. Like, that non-flattering kind of dry heave sob that makes people uncomfortable. And boy did I make people uncomfortable. Smiling carefree students got awkward when I walked by, wanting to look but not wanting to make eye contact lest they get dragged into my drama. As I quickly became a spectacle it struck me how uncomfortable we are with pain. How we try so badly to avoid it. No one dared to reach out, no one wanted to ask what was behind the tears; we all tried to pretend that nothing out of the norm was going down. And I made no attempt to reach out either. I kept trying to wipe away the tears, erase the evidence of suffering. I was as uncomfortable as they were.
I think this was the beginning of my breaking. The emotions were too many, too heavy for me alone. So I wrote about them. Then I shared my raw ugly story of loss with that class of fifteen strangers. I shared that story with my mother, and with choice friends and family. I was met with some blank stares and a few awkward silences. But for the most part I found that when I was authentic others would respond in kind. Many of my relationships went to new depths. I found that more often than not we feel incapable, overwhelmed, or confused. We are constantly in desperate need of grace and fellowship, yet we insist on flying solo.
I still struggle to let people into the lonely and messy corners of my heart; the places I could use company the most. But as I have written so many times before, I’m working on it.