Have you ever had something happen, something that was, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small, that seemed to follow you around all day long? Something that, like a dark cloud, seemed to cast shadows on everything else? Something that made each beat of your heart just a little bit more painful? Something like that happened to me today. It isn’t a big deal…. its pain was similar to the stumping of a toe. It hurt, but it was a silly kind of hurt. The kind of hurt you feel like a pansy for feeling. It’s really hard to edit this blog, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t…. but I can’t detail the circumstances of this painful event. What I can say is that it lingered, like a sore, in the back of my mind all day. When things grew quiet, it was there. I made dinner… and it was there. I got an e-mail from a student’s parent… and, as I read the e-mail, it was there. Part of me ached to reach out to a friend…. any friend. But there isn’t any. At least, none that I really feel permission from to talk to. See, the sad thing is… I’m a good friend…. from a distance. Often, I’ve been the one from whom they’ve sought advice on child-related things. Sometimes I’ve been the ear for the ones who are hurting. Apparently, it’s fun to laugh with me, and exchange polite “how-do-you-dos” and “good-to-see-yous.” But, all my life, there’s been this invisible coat wrapped around me that seems to scare people away, almost as though I’m sort of a hunter and they, my prey, sense danger and run. You think I’m exaggerating. But I’m really, really not. Lots of people are nice to me. Lots of people will let me care for their children and stop me in the halls for a quick hug and pleasantries. They did that when I was in high school too. But did you know that, when I was in school, I was never asked to go to a birthday party. I was never invited…. anywhere. The bottom line here is… while a part of me ached to turn to someone and say, “I know it shouldn’t, but that bothered me today,” I couldn’t. So instead, I was driving down the road, coming home after another fun day with my girls. The girls were giggling in the backseat and Maelea, my current character, popped into my head. Immediately, I was transported to her world. And the bug that was eating at my heart went away for a few minutes. Characters have always done that for me. And, usually, it relieves me and makes me happy because it makes me feel normal again. Today, however, it just highlighted how alone I felt.
Just as I usually do, I shook my head, dusted it off and chastised myself from being so “sensitive” and “sentimental.” I am strong. I am fearless. And I’ve got this. See, in my world, being “sensitive” is a weakness. Being sentimental is a flaw. I spent years being sarcastically mocked, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unintentionally, for showing self-doubt or being sensitive. I was supposed to be this… pillar… who never stumbled. Old habits die hard and I literally found myself shaking my head, as if I could magically displace the hurt, however silly it might have been, and see the beauty of the day instead. Looking for beautiful things has become an ingrained trait of mine… it is something I do to help keep me positive. Sometimes, though, you don’t need to look for beautiful things. Sometimes, you just need to get it out. God gave us our voice for a reason…. we aren’t supposed to keep a lid on our feelings. It is immensely dangerous and self-destructive to do so. But how are you supposed to talk when there is no one around to listen?
My girls and I played Jenga. Jenga is a game of blocks. You stack them up and then try to pull one block at a time off of the structure without it collapsing. It is really a simple game. But, as we played, it occurred to me that while eventually the removal of one specific block causes the entire structure to collapse, it isn’t just that block that causes the damage. The removal of all the previous blocks made the entire thing unsteady prior to the one being removed. If all the other blocks had not been removed, then the removal of the one probably wouldn’t cause the thing to fall. But because the other blocks’ removal created an unsteady structure, then the one’s removal acts as the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. In and of themselves, each block is just a block. But, when all the blocks that are removed are added together, it results in the demolition of the structure. Therefore, each block is paramount to the structure’s sturdiness; the removal of any of them places the entire thing in jeopardy.
This made my brain do cartwheels. Because it reminded me that this thing that happened that hurt me wasn’t just an irrelevant thing. It was the block whose removal made me acknowledge the pain. I’d spent all day beating myself up for feeling hurt; I’d been scolding myself because it “shouldn’t” have bothered me. The hurt it caused hadn’t been dealt with all day long because I’d been so busy disapproving its very existence. The only emotion worthy of acknowledgement, in my book, is joy. I’ve spent my entire life programming myself to systematically reject any negative emotion. Oh, I write about pain all day long. Every night, I chronicle characters who live awful nightmares. It is the only space in which I give unedited acknowledgement of pain. And, here, in this diary of a blog, I try to put words to what’s in my head and heart. A lot of it deals with processing trauma. In reality, though, this blog, non-fiction as it may be, is still the written word. In real life, Tiffini doesn’t talk about hurting. She is always “okay.” She’s the Jenga structure that’s missing a few blocks—-unsteady, but holding on. Terrified of collapsing, of “breaking down” in front of another human being. The trouble with all of this is that you cannot limit emotion. People say joy is a choice. Tell that to Abraham when he was walking his son, whom he’d spent years praying for, to an alter upon which he fully intended on sacrificing said son. People say joy is a choice. Tell that to the fifteen-year-old girl who spent three years trapped as a victim of human trafficking. People say joy is a choice. Tell that to the alcoholic, who drinks because the bottom of the bottle is the only place he finds respite from the roaring fire that’s burning the edges of his heart. People say joy is a choice. Tell that to the man whose children were shot to death while they were at school. You see, I’ve spent years believing that lie, believing that, if I wasn’t happy, it was my own fault.
That is a lie.
Really awful, terrible stuff happens. It happens to all of us. And, when it does, what are we supposed to do, exactly? Spend a year in “mourning” and then just “decide” we’re happy again? I understand the point behind the saying. I understand that, at some point, you wake up and realize the world didn’t stop spinning. I understand that, at some point, you laugh…. even though a piece of you is still dead. I understand the idea of “letting go.” But I’ve spent years being “happy” all the time. I spent my childhood doing the same thing. And what I’ve learned is that you can numb yourself. You can numb yourself to pain… that’s how the girl who is raped multiple times a night survives. But you can numb yourself to joy, too. You can pretend to be happy so long that you forget what happy really feels like. Your whole life becomes one big story, one big play, in which you’re pretending to feel something you don’t. When you see others laughing, and smiling, you think, ‘What are they doing that I’m not?” Eventually, you wake up to find one day that you’ve been so many walls around your heart, in an effort to protect it, that you’ve blocked feeling. The point is, no emotion is trivial. I have a hard time voicing disappointment because it feels like I’m complaining. But disappointment is a valid emotion. If I reject it, then I hammer in another brick in the wall around my heart. I have a hard time voicing when I am hurt. But hurt is a valid emotion. If I reject it, I hammer in another brick on the wall around my heart. I have a really hard time voicing anger. But anger is a valid emotion. If I reject it, then I hammer another brick on the wall surrounding my heart. I have a hard time voicing loneliness. But loneliness is a valid emotion. If I reject it, I hammer another brick on the wall around my heart. Happiness, in and of itself, isn’t a decision you make. Happiness is the byproduct of being true to yourself. Being true to yourself means giving yourself the space to live without anesthesia; it means being brave enough to feel, to avoid becoming numbed. The first step, then, is not to spend the whole day refuting what you feel. If you do that, as I have today, when the sun sets, you still feel wounded and also mentally and emotionally exhausted from all the effort it has taken to “be strong.” The first step is to acknowledge what you are feeling, and why, without classifying it as “trivial.” William Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose, by any other name, is still a rose.” Likewise, pain of any degree is still pain. Only once you acknowledge its existence can you then start to process, accept and move on.
We sing a song in church my pastor likes that’s been on my mind tonight. It goes:
“Come and dine,” the Master calleth, “Come and dine.”
You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time
He who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine
To the hungry, calleth now, “Come and dine.”
That song made me cry today. It reminds me that I don’t have to be jovial all the time to be accepted. I don’t have to be sad. I just have to be.