A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about suffering where I talked about how I’ve struggled with hard things in our lives, and the guilt I inflict upon myself when I try to cope with struggles by thinking about other people who had it worse. The last line of that post was “When something sucks, it sucks, and it’s okay to admit it, even if just to ourselves.”
That post was more timely than I realized.
Almost five years ago, a friend of ours developed breast cancer. Long-time readers may remember that I ran a race in her honor with plans to run the same race this year at her five-year-she-beat-cancer anniversary. Two weeks ago she learned that the cancer has returned; it is in her liver and probably her bones, as well. It is an understatement to say that it is not good news.
Our friend is an amazing person. She is so unbelievably nice that you almost wonder if she is for real – until you get to know her and realize that she absolutely 100% is. Her husband is a rock, and I’d love to tell you their wonderful love story – one that Mr. Andi and I watched develop many years ago – but it’s not mine to share here. They are amazing people.
Within a few hours of announcing the return of the cancer on her Caring Bridge page, sentiments about how wonderful they are and how God will come through for her were filling the comments. Every bit of it was true, but it frustrated me.
Cancer sucks and it may kill her.
She is an only child to her parents and a mother to two young sons.
She has been through too much already.
She has put on a brave face for a long time. Too long.
There is nothing inherently wrong with telling someone facing a difficult struggle that you admire her, or that she has an amazing attitude, or that her faith inspires you. But if that’s all that she ever hears, words like these can be as much a burden as they are a boost – maybe more so. If the only thing people seem to see is a positive attitude, strong faith, and joy in suffering, then when negativity, doubt, and sorrow come, she may feel she can’t show it, and she may feel very alone. Our friend’s Caring Bridge page is filled with hope and faith and positivity. I want her to be hopeful and positive and to have faith, and I believe that she does.
But speaking from my own experience, and from observing that of my own daughter, I worry. For years, I’ve been told what a wonderful mom I am, how amazing I am in the way I handle the things life has thrown at me, and how inspiring we are. Although compliments are nice – and everyone needs to hear from time to time that they are special – I don’t see myself as wonderful, or amazing, or inspiring.
For as long as I’ve been blogging in this space, I’ve tried to be Real – Authentic – Honest – Relatable. I’ve tried to show people both the clouds and the sunshine, because that’s what our life is. At times the clouds bring torrential downpours that threaten to drown us, but I usually don’t talk about the near-drownings – I simply talk of rain – because when the sunshine returns it is all the more glorious because of its juxtaposition with the rain.
But it’s also because I feel like I can’t show weakness.
Sarah Kate has had a similar experience. Unlike me, who came to this “Strong! Amazing! Inspiring!” business as an adult with life experience, she has been “Strong! Amazing! Inspiring!” her whole life. She’s been hearing these things since she was in preschool, and the truth is that she IS all of those things. Like our friend, she has a persona that people admire, and it is simply who she is – she knows no other life.
But still I worry – can she ever show weakness?
What Sarah Kate, and our friend with cancer, and I need sometimes is not only praise, but empathy. To be told that it’s okay to be real and honest and authentic and imperfect. To know that we aren’t letting the world down if we admit that even though our lives are mostly wonderful, sometimes things do suck.