For the past four years, I’ve spent countless Sunday mornings with crayon wax under my fingernails, bubble solution staining my jeans, and carpet burning my hands and knees into a fiery red haze.
I would not have it any other way.
I’m a volunteer in my church’s one-and-a-half to two year old room, which directly translates to “The Place Where Parents Drop Off Their Kids Who Are Too Young to Understand That They Will Be Returning and Too Young to Sleep Through Service, In Hopes that They Might Enjoy One Rare Hour of Peace”. This is the ultimate stage of separation anxiety and communication breakdowns; week after week, without fail, there will be at least one screamer, and every week, without fail, I will have snot, vomit, and/or soggy Cheerio parts hanging off every inch of my clothing.
I adore these unconventional, early Sunday mornings despite the exhaustion that they repay me with. For each moment of frustration, I receive about twenty more that are oozing with joy, love, and sweetness. These kids don’t know what I’m going through outside of that room, and nor do they care. All they care about is whether or not I’m swift enough to catch the rice they throw out of the play bin and whether or not I’m strong enough to bounce three of them on my hip while listening to another, clinging to my leg, tell an incoherent story in terribly broken beginner’s English about the time the Easter Bunny ate her brother. Such dependency and downright trust are quite refreshing.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to quiet the heart wrenching screeches of little ones begging for their mothers; it took me multiple failed attempts to acquire this skill. At first, I played the “ignore it and hope it stops yelling” game. Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t work. Then, I tried distraction by “FANCY!!” garage sale calibur toys with a million missing parts and bubble mix that only works when you expel every ounce of oxygen in your lungs (somewhat difficult as a struggling asthmatic). Needless to say, they were unimpressed. Finally, I decided to opposite action them, prayed that “monkey see, monkey do!” was a valid technique, and put on a huge smile, exclaiming, “We’re going to have SO much fun in here today!”
My smile disappeared less than two seconds later when I discovered that the screams had only amplified and my eardrum had lost all functioning.
One such Sunday, after a rather tough week in the outside world, I was handed a child who was bawling with every ounce of might in her little body. After trying everything that I usually tried to calm her, I caved, took off my happy-go-lucky Sunday School face, and said, “I know, I want to cry too.” I carried her to a rocking chair in the corner, held her close, and repeated, “I know, I know,”, letting her cry until the tears seemed to run out. It only took about two minutes, and then, she was still. At this point, I was able to get her up and take her to pick out a book, and for the rest of the service, she was perfectly content.
I had reached a startling revelation, a revelation that defies every cultural expectation and every self help lecture I’ve ever sat through. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay not to smile. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay not to dust yourself off and stand right back up. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to acknowledge the pure anguish of the situation, cry for a while, and get it all out.
Maybe, just maybe, we as humans were not created to generate our own happiness.
This realization has bothered me for ages. People preach to me about optimism often. I hear frequently, especially as a varsity runner, that attitude means absolutely everything. To disagree would make me sound hopelessly pessimistic and would frame me as a Debby Downer. I wanted people to think I was happy, because happiness, I have always been taught, is the free result when you do everything right and make intelligent decisions. I wanted to have it all together… so I continued to smile, even when I didn’t want to.
In the past few months, I have come to a glorious conclusion; showing negative emotion does not make you “bad”; it makes you real. It makes you authentic. And that is rare, so rare that it is blissfully refreshing when one happens to wander across it. Being transparent allows people to relate, to see that they are not alone, and to open up. Stifling a burn wound or stuffing a gag in the mouth of a choking person has never solved the problem; all injuries must be exposed to oxygen in order for healing to occur, and the same goes for wounds that are deeper, wounds that are emotionally rooted. We need to spill our feelings and our tears and our screams into the chilly night air, and that doesn’t make us soft or dramatic so much as it makes us strong and developed intellectually.
“I’m fine,” when you are apparently not fine should no longer be the only socially acceptable response to a socially acceptable question that has taken on a rhetorical nature.
It is a lie. Nothing more, nothing less. And it only initiates a regressing societal spiral of loneliness. If everyone else is okay, why am I not okay? If everyone else is doing so well, what could possibly be wrong with me that I am not?
Here’s the thing: none of us are okay.
I’m not okay.
I want to talk about that now, and loudly, and publicly, about the things that I see wrong. I want to stand on my soapbox with tears flowing from my eyes and preach about what means the world to me. Emotion is a gift and pathos is a spear and I refuse to be afraid of them any longer. Let’s address our problems. Let’s talk about them. Let’s be like that little girl in my Sunday School class and screech until our vocal chords screech in protest. And let’s hold each other’s hands the entire way, and acknowledge that it sucks. Acknowledge that this is, indeed bad. And life can, indeed, be bad.
But life can also be beautiful. By fabricating the bad, we are failing to pick up on its beauty. I have found unmatched comfort sobbing into my friends’ arms, and my greatest works of art were woven at two in the morning from pain as crimson as the Biblical Nile. I am thankful for every aspect of these ups and downs, the views of the hills and the air of the valleys. But I couldn’t be thankful by merely pretending they don’t exist.
I hope that you find peace in your own transparency and relief in your honesty.
I hope that you can learn to relish in humanity and the merit of its imperfection.
I hope that you cry this week.
I hope that we all do.