This past week a girlfriend and I were having drinks and she noticed an enormous purple and yellow bruise that seems to have taken up permanent residence on the side of my leg.
“Wow- that looks terrible.”
“Ugh. I know… I bruise easily.”
This response is the equivalent of “I’m fine” in response to “How are you?”
It stops the questions.
It changes the topic.
Mystery solved- move on.
Here’s the thing though- I don’t actually bruise that easily.
But, I would rather tell a little white lie than admit that something hurt me.
As I thought about it, I realized how silly it was that even in the most mundane of ways, I don’t want to admit that something hurt.
In spite of irrefutable proof, I still feel compelled to deny pain.
Because I want to be thought of as strong and tough and unbreakable and… brave.
I am the “you’re fine- brush it off” babysitter when kids fall and skin their knees (or when grown ups have broken bones, hearts, lives).
I am that friend who feels compelled to remind everyone when we are en route to a funeral that it would be selfish to cry at the service. It isn’t “our day” after all (It sounds so much worse when I type it….). We must be strong for our friend.
I am the girl who can make the arrangements, have the difficult conversations with the doctors, call and break bad news with barely a crack in my voice (so long as I don’t breathe).
As a girlfriend of mine who is every bit as brave (i.e. stubborn) as I am has struggled to be “brave” in the light of her father’s recent cancer diagnosis, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it really means to be brave.
Is it really what I am describing? The ability to suck it up. To say “I’m fine” when you aren’t. To do things other people can’t or won’t. To smile when you want to cry. To never ask for help. To keep going when you are exhausted, scared and totally spent.
Is that really what it means to be brave?
Because some part of me feels very unsettled by that.
My English major self knew there was only one “fair” way to answer the question- the dictionary of course.
“Brave (\’brav\)- Having or showing courage”
(So annoying when a definition uses another word that I then have to look up…)
“Cour·age (/’k?rij,’k?-rij/)- The ability to do something that frightens one”
Did they just use the “F” word?
(Thank God I am so good at pretending- otherwise, I would have to admit what an ass I felt like after reading that.)
After all these years- after all the attempts to hide it, bury it, ignore it and deny it- I have finally come to understand that being scared is an essential part of being brave.
They aren’t opposites. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
In fact, you cannot be brave without first being scared.
And there is no requirement that you hide the scared. I even checked the fine print. It isn’t there.
I actually feel ashamed for all the ways I have contributed to those around me believing otherwise.
For the times I have yelled at my sisters for crying when I demanded that they be “brave” instead.
For refusing to admit that things- rejections, losses and even bruises- hurt my feelings. Hurt my pride. Hurt my heart. Just hurt.
For hiding my tears when I had ever reason to show them.
For not letting the people who love me help me because I did not want to be perceived as weak.
Because the thing is, the bull shit is contagious. The mantra- “If you hide yours, I will hide mine too”- doesn’t make any of us better. And it certainly doesn’t make this hard thing we are doing together called life any easier.
And as I have thought about it more, I am amazed at the irony of how I have defined- and lived- “brave” for so long.
What on earth is brave or strong about pretending? About putting on a disguise and refusing to share who you really are with the world?
It’s everything I hate in fact. Fakeness. Insincerity.
And most of all- it’s cowardly. It’s the very opposite of what I wanted so badly to be by doing it. Go figure.
Several years ago, I went to a writing retreat wherein each person brought something they valued and told the group about it as an icebreaker. As I looked around the table of treasures, my eyes stopped at a beautiful elephant figurine that was missing a leg. I felt so sorry for whoever had dropped it in transport to our meeting.
However, when it was her turn to speak, she told a very different story- one that a girl who tries to deny even the pain of her bruises has never forgotten.
She explained to us that before her father passed away, he spent thirty years working as a psychiatrist. He kept the broken elephant on his desk- legs up- to remind him not just to accept- but to celebrate and honor- the brokenness of people.
At the conclusion of the retreat, we each took an index card and wrote down a promise we made to ourselves. I have kept mine sitting on my desk since that day…
“I promise to believe in myself and my writing abilities and not be so hard on myself (the broken elephant).”
I can’t say I have always kept that promise.
In fact, I am pretty sure I propped that card up on my desk that day and promptly resumed my attempts to arrange my life- or at least to present my life- in a way where the broken legs of it didn’t show.
So today, I am dusting off that card- and the promise.
And I am inviting each of you to do the same.
It’s time to live “legs up,” don’t you think?