A friend of mine was talking about the painful process of figuring out how to help her seriously ill father while also being a good parent to her young children and pursuing a rewarding but demanding career. She works in a leadership position where everyone relies on her to set the tone, and model the highest standards of integrity and compassion, regardless of how chaotic and painful things feel inside.
“I hope that I can help my family cope with all this with as much grace as you did when you were helping your mom,” she said.
“Really?” I asked. “I seemed graceful? I was NOT graceful. I yelled at airline employees and insurance company representatives who are paid minimum wage for people like me to take out my frustrations with their stupid company on them. I kicked my luggage and cried uncontrollably next to the turnstiles at the airport. I yelled at a guy at dunkin donuts for not honoring a coupon. I was short with my kids, I slept in all the time, I drank too much. I sobbed in my neurologist’s office when they wouldn’t give me antidepressants to help my migraines and anxiety. They weren’t even saying I shouldn’t go on them -- they just said I should ask my primary care doctor for them. I was a complete mess, most of the time. I can’t believe you thought I was showing any grace.”
She looked so relieved. “Thank you for telling me that,” she said.
My friend is a picture of grace. Impeccably dressed, she exercises regularly and parents with patience and thoughfulness. She excels as a leader and seizes opportunities to build her career and develop an even more impressive professional presence. She lives in a stylish home that reflects her family’s distinct identity and taste. She travels internationally, and she writes with a skill that could make you weep. She is a good friend.
When my mother was dying, I would see her, and tears would well up in her eyes as she listened to my story. I would tell her I felt shredded inside -- torn and pulled and stretched thin and absolutely useless to everyone and yet required to be helpful and competent always. I ate unhealthfully and stopped going to therapy and ignored every bit of helpful advice anyone gave me about taking care of myself. I felt disconnected from my kids, and when I was with them I worried I should be with my mom. When I was with her, I worried about how my kids were doing, and felt guilty for the burden I was imposing on my husband by being away. I felt like a complete and utter mess. Yet my friend thought I’m the one who had it together.
Why do we think other people handle things so much better than we do? If we like someone, especially, we think that because they aren’t walking around with mascara running down their face or hair matted from forgetting basic hygiene, that they have their act together unlike we do (even though we’re basically showered and coherent most of the time). I know a few folks who struggle with severe depression, and even these folks seem graceful and kind -- they may not be career go-getters -- they may hold back in some areas, but they love their kids and take time to make their children’s lives more joyful. When they leave their house, they look good, even if they are feeling awful.
My friend and I, and many of us, it seems, have made the same mistake of thinking we must be failing because boy, does holding it all together feel hard. But the truth that strikes me as I think about my friend is that it feels hard because it IS hard. Life is hard. People we love will suffer, and they will die, and we will be powerless to stop it. We will get sick, our bodies will hurt and grow tired, and people will do things that make us angry. There will be injustice beyond our power to stop, and it will directly hurt people we know. Our children will experience pain -- they will learn that life is painful. Adversity will enter our lives in a messy jumble that we cannot pull apart.
We don’t get to “take things as they come,” because sometimes things come at us so fast, and from so many directions that we get knocked to the floor. In my own life, within the past four years my younger son received a potentially life-threatening diagnosis, his brother was diagnosed with a developmental disability, my husband was laid off from his job, my career maintained a stressfully amorphous quality, and then my mother was diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness, ALS, from which she died just 14 months after the diagnosis was confirmed.
This was all very, very hard. And the whole time, I felt bad about how I handled it.
One time, my sister and I were driving a bright red rental car from Chicago, where we had each flown in, to Macomb, Illinois -- about four hours away. We were talking and venting, laughing and getting choked up, scheming about how to remain a team as we helped our mother and her partner face her awful illness. We were the only two who knew what it was like, what we were going through -- the difficult dance of being dutiful daughters while pushing our brilliant and stubbornly independent mother to allow others to help her when she needed it.
Lost in conversation, I lost track of my speed until I saw the police car’s lights and heard the siren. I pulled over to the side of the road, and I started to cry. I told the officer, “I’m so sorry, I lost track of my speed -- we are driving to see our mother, who is dying.” My sister tried to speak up for me and tell him I don’t usually drive like that, and he snapped at her, “Don’t tell me how to do my job,” taking my license and returning to his squadcar.
We sat in stunned silence, waiting for him to return. He brought back my license and handed me a written warning. “I”m giving you this warning NOT because of what you said, but because you have a clean driving record,” he said. “MY mother goes to the hospital every single day because she is also sick,” he said, “and I don’t USE HER ILLNESS as an EXCUSE for BREAKING the law.”
“Thank you,” I gasped, “I’m sorry,” I repeated, beginning to shake with anger and shame. My sister and I got out of the car to switch drivers, moving swiftly, startling him in the process. He stepped back, then said, more kindly, “I hope your mother gets better."
“SHE WON’T,” we both shouted, slamming the doors; my sister pulling out onto the highway and driving away at an appropriate speed.
This is what we do to ourselves. We lecture ourselves that the struggles we face are no excuse for failing to live up to our idea of how we are "supposed" to be. Why do we do that? Why do we act like an arrogant cop, ready to bust ourselves for making mistakes or having moments when we lose ourselves in our emotions? Why do we police our own grief for any sign of weakness or imperfection?
I also wonder why we assume everyone else is ok. When my mother was facing her illness and I was traveling to see her at least monthly, then every couple of weeks, other people would open up to me about the burdens they were carrying. Most of my coworkers and many of my friends struggled to be dutiful children to aging parents who were starting to decline in health or mental capacity. Many of my friends have children with learning disabilities, allergies, or health concerns. Friends have crappy bosses, or more bills than they can pay; I have friends who’ve had cancer or lost a spouse to illness or accident.
None of us are full of grace all the time. None of us is spared of the burdens of living and working and loving who we love.
Instead of policing ourselves, we should spend as much time as we can commisserating, gossiping, sharing stories and laughing. We should catch ourselves being kind, notice that we are coping, reward ourselves for making it through the day instead of punishing ourselves for the effort it takes.
“That’s life,” the saying goes -- often as a way to get someone, for instance a sullen teen-ager, to stop complaining. But there’s another way to say that: affirmatively, as an acknowledgement that yes, this is hard, and this is how life is. This is life.
A saying I like better is: the only way forward is through. Stumbling clumsily, with jagged edges and shredded patience, the grace that we show emerges simply from our continuing to go on. We get up in the morning, we show love to our family, we work and complain, we sob and we laugh. That’s life.