It’s okay to not be okay. This is a quote from a wonderful email a friend of mine sent recently. It even serves as the introductory line to a popular Christian song on the radio. However, do we believe it?
It is ironic that we live in a world begging for others to be authentic. But in my experience, I don’t believe we are truly comfortable when people actually live into authenticity. It’s raw. It’s messy, and quite frankly, people are generally uncomfortable when sitting too closely to another person’s discomfort.
I’ve found that there are times in my life when I am not okay. Life circumstances can crash around us and create a zone in which daily living is challenging. Mostly I try to mask this, which speaks to my own dysfunction. However, I am occasionally tired and the mask slips a little. Either a comment is made or my smile falters, and others can see a hint that something is wrong.
It is during these times that I have seen how unprepared we are as a society for authentic feelings. “Smile, Megan,” I’ve been told, when my passive face rubbed someone the wrong way. If I’ve admitted to being sad, some have been quick to either attempt to fix it or downplay the severity of the situation altogether. “Have you tried..?” “Well at least you don’t” “That’s nothing, this is what happened to my cousin’s boyfriend’s sister.” Biblical platitudes, while well intentioned, can also send the message that you aren’t allowed to feel these messy feelings. “Fear not, sayeth the Lord.” “Do not worry. Trust that it is in God’s plan.”
Trust me when I tell you, I am just as guilty as the next person of attempting to quickly shoo away less pleasant emotions in myself and other people. It wasn’t until I sat in a counseling group that I realized how often this happens. We were instructed not to offer a tissue to another member if they were crying, because it sends the message that we want them to stop crying. Whaaat? No! I’m comforting them when I offer a tissue! Or so I thought. However, when I stopped to think about it, I realized that perhaps it was a subconscious way for me to stop the other person’s sadness. If I’m really honest, pure unhinged emotions sometimes make me want to crawl up a tree.
Pia Mellody, author of “Facing Codependence,” argues that our society is very uncomfortable with certain emotions and even goes so far as to say that they are somewhat gender specific. Women are not allowed to feel anger, and men are not allowed to express fear. Neither gender can be sad, and as a whole, we reward and condone suppression of such emotions. However, fear, anger and sadness are necessary and real emotions that every healthy human being struggles with.
How does this relate to authenticity? I think that we sometimes seek superficial authenticity. It’s great if someone shows a picture of a messy house or a Pinterest fail. Look at me being authentic! However, that is merely scratching the surface of our authentic self. If we seek to build a loving Christian community in which we can be our real selves, we need to actually find ways to be more comfortable with people whose emotions are a little untidy or whose behaviors don’t quite fit into our acceptable boxes.
Bren Brown offers a wonderful explanation of authenticity in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.”
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough”
Authenticity is messy. It requires recognition that even our religious leaders are flawed humans. It means allowing loving, devoted mothers to confess to occasional feelings of resentment. Authenticity is vulnerable. It is admitting that some of your relationships with family members are complicated. It means dropping the faade of perfection and allowing yourself to admit that being single or childless isn’t what you wanted. For another it might mean being able to say that being single or childless is exactly what you wanted and not feeling shame. Authenticity requires us to suspend judgment when others share their deepest secrets and darkest sins. Authenticity says, “Tell me more,” or “How can I help you?” rather than offering a quick fix or shoving it under a carpet.
Unfortunately, fostering a truly authentic community requires us to sit very close to other people’s messtheir guilt, shame, sadness, imperfection, anger and flawswithout fear that it will rub off on us. It also requires us to show fierce agape love to those who are a little unlovable for this season of their lives.
Job’s friends got it right (kind of). When his life fell apart, their first reaction was to simply sit and grieve with him (before they totally messed up and started blaming him for his misfortune). As a Christian community, my hope is that we can begin to embrace people and mean it when we say, “It’s okay to not be okay.” Let’s sit with them in the storm and allow truly authentic emotions to exist for a minute. Let’s allow others to bring the shadows of their lives to the surface in a supportive, loving way. And let’s give each other and ourselves a bit of a break from the implied expectations of perfection so our authentic selves can safely surface.