I’m fine…I say to the cashier at the grocery store.
I’m fine…I say to the friend I run into at a coffee shop.
I’m fine…I say to my mother when she calls.
I’m fine…I say to my kids when they notice my wrinkled brow and my shortened patience.
I’M FINE…I say to myself when I’m running late again and I feel my entire world spinning out of control.
“I’m fine” is the phrase we are conditioned to say from our earliest social interactions. We’ve watched our parents do it. We’ve watched our friends do it. We complain about the fact that our kids do it. And so, inevitably, it is what we say when someone asks how we are. Even when we are not fine. Even when we are anything but fine.
So why do we keep doing it? It’s simple. It’s because I am fairly confident that when the grocery store cashier says, “How are you today?” she does not want to the truth because she is not getting paid to listen to a litany of grief. She is getting paid to move people through the express lane. And trust me, I have more than 12 items in my emotional grocery cart.
I am also fairly certain that my therapist, who I actually pay to hear about just how not fine I am, does not want to hear it most days. Sometimes, “I’m fine” is how we bottle the angst so that it doesn’t spill out like a severed artery; “I’m fine” is how we convince ourselves to get out of bed; and “I’m fine” is how we survive the day.
These days I feel like I every time I leave the house I am a carrying worn, battered suitcase filled with worry, anger, heartache, and stress around with me wherever I go. I walk through the world in a disguise of smiles and relatively clean clothes and somewhat styled hair to disguise the monster that lurks beneath the surface. In reality, I am battered and bruised and bleeding. And, like Mary Poppins, my bag looks innocent enough on the outside, but were I to open it? What would come out would defy the natural laws of physics.
I say all of this not to create some sort of whining, please-pity-me-because-my-life-is-so-hard kind of narcissistic catharsis, but rather to point out the obvious. We are not always “fine.”
We are not the faces we present on Facebook or Instagram. We are humans that hurt and carry a myriad of feelings. But if we wore our pain as a physical representation, the world would look like The Night of the Living Dead. We would stumble through the day, zombie-like, with a lust for someone’s else’s brain because maybe, just maybe it would replace our infected one—or at least satisfy the intense longing we had for something that seemed so far out of reach.
But again, I am rambling. The point I am so desperately trying to make is that when we say we’re “fine” or when we hear someone else say it, it’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s probably never true. But at some point, we have to stop dwelling in our own disasters and start seeing the world around us for what it is – a world of hurting, broken people. In this, we can not only find solidarity and companionship, but we can soothe our own pain.
When we lock ourselves alone in a prison cell of singular victimization, we end up exactly that—alone. We become lonely in a crowd. We become invisible beings walking through a world that to us seems to have everything that we long for, but have convinced ourselves we can never have.
I don’t have all the answers. If I did, this would be a very different article. But what I do know is that we need to start interacting with the world in a new way. We need to start imagining that the people around us are wearing badges that name the burdens they carry. We need to start realizing that, often, the people who hurt us are damaged themselves. We need to realize that the people we see as the happiest, the ones that we secretly envy because they seem immune to the struggles we’re experiencing, are carrying hurts of their own. We need to find empathy.
Imagine if we could, in fact, see one another’s struggles. What if the man at the coffee who snapped at the waiter wore a badge that said: “my wife just left me”? How would we feel if the woman at the store who seems to have it all together wore a badge that said, “my child is ill and I live in constant fear”? Imagine that the young couple in front of us in line, the ones who seem so happy and in love while our own relationship is struggling, had signs on their backs that said: “I hope our debit card is not denied.” Or the friend who posts the happiest photos on social media actually captioned them with “my husband is struggling with addiction.” Maybe the kid who bullies your child at school wears a label embroidered on their jacket that says “I’m being abused at home”.
How would this change the way we treated other people? And perhaps more importantly, how would it change the way we treat ourselves?
While, of course, we cannot solve the world’s problems in casual interactions, we can learn to practice more kindness and perhaps, show ourselves a little of that same kindness along the way. If nothing else, we can learn to stop feeling so alone with our own demons.
So many people go through a personal loss or struggle, but no one ever knows. They continue to put on the happy face they think other people expect. Perhaps it’s because we feel ashamed. Perhaps we feel embarrassed. Perhaps we feel like no one else will understand. Or perhaps our grief is just so deep that putting it into words will make it grow into a beast that consumes us.
Whatever the reason, I have learned one thing for certain. Giving life to our greatest fears and worries can be overwhelming – but the greatest battles occur in our own head. Setting our demons free through honest and truthful communication with others around us is the only way to allow them to dissipate. And no, talking about a painful experience may not make it less painful, but it will release some of the pressure that builds up in our minds. It will allow a slow, soft leak that begins to soften the pain—even if, in the moment, the initial puncture feels razor-sharp.
As we learn to share, more often than not, we will hear stories from others that will give us hope. We will learn of a person that struggled with the same things our child is struggling with but came out ok on the other end. We will find out that our friend has gone through the same kind of loss we are experiencing, but learned greater strength through it. We will discover that the person we thought was leading a perfect life was actually dealing with issues that make our problems seem minuscule by comparison—and they need a friend as much as we do.
The trick is not to compare pain and to understand that there is no statute of limitations on grief. We must remember that we are not alone, even when we feel our loneliest. If we can have the courage to share our stories, we might just be giving someone else the relief that they need, while providing relief for ourselves along the way.
Learning to talk about our pain, and not in a soul-sucking-always-down kind of way, but in an open, honest way that represents the reality of where are, is not only a healing process for us, but it helps others around us.
It teaches our children that they can be real. They don’t have to say “fine” when we ask how their day was. When we let them know we are human and have feelings, we give them permission to talk about what is really going on in their lives. And when a friend asks how we are and we can tell them that we are in a bit of rough patch, we allow them space to be real about what they might be going through, as well.
I am not suggesting that we start using the grocery store clerk as therapy, nor do I think that we need to unload details on our children, casual friends, or strangers. But I do think that it’s ok to not be fine – with or without details as to why. And in accepting our own pain and in acknowledging that we are not always fine, we can start to extend grace to others around us in a new way. We can begin to understand that the person who was rude in the coffee shop was that way, not necessarily because he is a horrible person, but because his own pain is radiating out in ways that he doesn’t necessarily know how to control.
By accepting that being fine is certainly the desired place, but not always the reality, we can accept our own humanity—and perhaps learn a little more about the humanity of those around us.
I’m not fine right now. But I will be. One day. And when that day comes, my greatest hope is that I can use my struggles to help someone else. Sure, I know that I will continue to tell those little lies like “I’m fine” to get through the day. But as I continue to accept, acknowledge, and share my pain, I will find healing—and hopefully, offer some along the way.