Quiet, unassuming, steady. She is the woman who is always there, always dutiful. She serves in the Primary, is a leader to one of my children. I can’t express the kind of love and appreciation I have about her service. She teaches in fun, meaningful, participative ways. It’s clear she puts a lot into her calling; she puts a lot into whatever she does.
Although I don’t know her well (our ward split last year, so we are still all still in that process of building relationships), she’s been on my mental list of “people who are on top of it all.”
So one Sunday, as I was running off to take a health break between Sunday School and Relief Society, I reached across the rows of chairs to save myself a seat. I had just the right angle to look straight into this woman’s face. I was surprised by what I saw.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
She gave a simple, non-committal answer. I can’t remember which answer she chose, but you know the kind of answer I am talking about: “Okay.” “Hanging in there.” “Well enough.” “Fine. How are you?” Whatever it was, it was the type of response I think we all get used to giving, whether we are doing well or not. (If we are doing well, there is no reason to say more, is there? If we are not, we know that not everyone actually wants to know how things really are. Or maybe we aren’t ready or able to talk about it all.) (Side question: What’s your typical pat answer?)
I might not have pressed had her eyes not looked almost as though she had been crying. I didn’t know quite how to say that I saw something different in her eyes, so I was just honest. “Are you sure you are OK? You look like you have been crying.”(Yeah, well, when it comes to situations like this, I don’t like to beat around the bush, for better or for worse. I ask as I would like to be asked.)
She tried to brush it all aside (she looked now like she would start crying if she said anything more), but did suggest that maybe we could talk after the block of meetings.
I found her after class, and we began to talk. We ended up in that hallway until the next block was over. I was not prepared to hear what her life is like. She deals with hard stuff, and has for years.
And while I could blame the newness of our ward for my lack of awareness, I don’t, because this woman is strong enough that I may have never seen or known or sensed that she struggled. (Then there’s me, who cries at the drop of a hat if I’m having a bad day and probably doesn’t smile enough through her struggles.) For all my effort at trying to be sensitive to people around me, she had me fooled. I think she has pretty much everyone fooled. Had I not had that chance to see her head-on, I might not have ever seen it. (It was an uncharacteristically bad day, and enough happened to cause me to think we were supposed to connect on this occasion, so any credit goes to God.)
I don’t see her as anything but strong even after our discussion, and I understand the need to be strong. If anything, I respect her all the more now knowing what she works against while she still does so much.
But I am left wondering how many other women around me are suffering behind their smiles. I would never want to violate their privacy or need for silence, but sometimes I think our culture (and/or our interpretation of principles such as self-reliance and faithfulness) creates a faulty notion that we have to be strong all the time. And I think it’s something that, if not kept in check, can keep us from really learning how to love and be loved.
I remember something a bishopric member once said: “Sometimes we don’t do such a good job helping those who are strong.”
I have felt that before. I suspect many of you have, too. If it’s not something that can easily be shared across the pulpit (“Please pray for so-and-so”), easily fixed with a casserole, or easily recognized (as in, your head is bald from chemo), it’s hard to say, “Hey. I’m having a hard time right now.” For one reason or another, sometimes we are hesitant, even afraid, to ask for help.
On the flip side, even if someone’s challenge is well-known or obvious, sometimes we are afraid to ask how we can help, for fear of prying, or asking something that is sensitive or repetitive, or….
Sister Kathleen H. Hughes said something in a general Relief Society meeting several years ago that has stuck with me, and just came to mind as I was writing. She said:
Recently our presidency was meeting with a Church leader. He commented that he wished Relief Society and priesthood meetings would be places where we would be able to say to one another, “Sisters, or brothers, I’m struggling right now. Will you help me?”
I think creating this kind of safe space requires us to be willing to risk both in our need and in our efforts to reach out to those in need. (It also requires us to be patient with each other along the way.) I think that as we open our hearts a little more, we might just find the kind of sacred experiences that Sister Hughes describes in her talk. Our meeting rooms can become holy places. I think, too, that our interactions can be the foundation of more Christlike, hearts-knit-together types of relationships that extend beyond our meetinghouses.
So, what are your thoughts and experiences? More specifically, here are some possible questions to consider:
-When you are in pain, what helps you feel safe enough to share your burden?
- Are you the type that needs some space, or do you do better with a listening ear and a ready shoulder? In either case, if I were in your ward, or knew you in real life, how could I best reach out and support you in times of difficulty?
- Have you had those moments when meetings have become holy places, and hearts have been knit together? What made that possible?