by Joanie Butman
This week I took a trip to Massachusetts to finish the opening of our small beach cottage. A labor intensive but fun chore as the promise of summer stretches open before you. I love the first whiff of ocean air when I arrive and the peacefulness of once again falling asleep and waking to the rhythmic sound of the waves.
The community in which we reside during the summer and our town in Connecticut couldn’t be more polar opposites, which is what makes our vacations so enjoyable. Maybe it’s the hypnotic rhythm of the ocean, but the people on Long Beach are slow and easy versus the manic Type A constituents of Fairfield County – and I include my own family in the mix.
The sure sign that you have arrived on Long Beach is the appearance of the clothesline on the back deck. Everyone up there understands that there is nothing more luxurious than falling asleep on a pillowcase that has dried in the ocean breeze, but they don’t use the clothesline just for sheets. Everything goes on the line. I am constantly picking up boxers that have blown onto the street or other people’s cars.
Residents have no problem airing their laundry – in more ways than one. The houses are small (most without insulation) and very close together – just two rows of rustic cottages sharing a beach. Because of the proximity and the feeble construction, you can’t hide much. In fact, you can’t hide anything. Everyone knows each other’s business. Neighbors can tell you what you ate and drank last night and what time you got up this morning. You need to use the “How are you?” greeting judiciously because they will answer honestly and some in excruciating detail. There is no such thing as a simple “I’m fine.” No, it is always followed by some sort of clarification or further inquiry – usually involving a beverage. The relaxed pace leaves people eager for conversation. Sometimes it takes me a half hour or more to walk to or from my in-laws’ cottage, and it’s only five doors down. That’s the beauty of summer. With no pressing obligations, you can enjoy the luxury of unencumbered time. How better to invest it than in the lives of others?
As I dragged the clothesline out of the shed, I chuckled to myself thinking of doing this in Connecticut. Surely, there must be some kind of zoning regulation prohibiting such an aesthetically offensive but utilitarian object. Our town will gladly add a few sizes to their carbon footprint to maintain appearances. I’ve often wanted to install a clothesline in my yard just to see how long it would take before the first 911 call. No doubt it would prompt a flurry of complaints and attract a lot of attention in the police notes of the local paper. “She did wha-a-a-t?!”
Aside from the clothesline, authenticity is what I like most about our summer community. There is no pretense. Being in a bathing suit is a great equalizer. As I mentioned, there’s no hiding anything, and it wouldn’t occur to anyone there even if it were possible.
Conversely, in Connecticut authenticity is as rare a commodity as a clothesline – or so I originally thought. Over the years, however, I’ve discovered when you choose to be authentic, people respond in kind no matter where you find yourself. Honesty begets honesty. Choosing to be authentic in our relationships provides a safe haven for others to come for comfort, encouragement and support. There is no greater connector than shared suffering. Pain respects no boundaries. It is an equal opportunity business.
I consider it an honor and a privilege when someone feels comfortable enough to choose to reveal their pain. It is such a vulnerable position, which is probably why so many of us choose to be silent sufferers – something I’ve never mastered. With Joan of Arc as my patron saint, I can’t deny a predisposition to martyrdom. Or maybe it’s just my Catholic upbringing. I think all Catholics have a bit of the martyr in them because, as children, they were our idols. For many though, I think not being stoic might be considered a sign of weakness – especially if you’ve been taught to buck up all your life. For those people, it might even feel self-indulgent.
Despite my natural instinct towards martyrdom, I’ve fallen victim to the “I’m fine” syndrome more times than I care to remember. The problem is then I‘m trapped in a prison of my own making. Since I claim that I’m fine, people will treat me as if that’s true, but it’s not. Here’s the kicker, then I get mad at them because they can’t see my pain. How convoluted is that??? Hence, the “N” in the F.I.N.E. acronym: Nutso!
I recently sponsored a table at a Lenten lunch with a Christian speaker who shared the story of her mother’s murder and subsequently learning of her brother’s involvement. There must have been over 200 women in attendance. I had no idea what the speaker was going to discuss and assumed it was going to be a well-timed Jesus pep rally. It certainly was as this woman walked us through her pain and her ultimate reconciliation with a God she had abandoned in anger over the injustice of it all. The following morning one of my guests shared the following comments:
- WOW… what a lot of women showed up for a religious lunch!
- WOW… many of these fancy schmancy women actually have an inner life!!
It was her closing comment though that captured the essence of the luncheon. She concluded, “The speaker had a story to tell, but oddly her story was no more or less ‘shocking’ to me than anyone's story…we all love, we all lose, we all suffer, we all grieve…hers was a story of the human condition. Maybe a tad more dramatic than some, but really just a story of having faith, losing faith, and regaining faith. And that story is one we all benefit from hearing. It doesn't have to be that 'dramatic' to be powerful.”
Pleased that she enjoyed herself and in total agreement with her insights, I thanked her in return for providing such wonderful ‘bloggage.’ I also pointed out that despite their polished images, I’d bet most of the women in attendance were just as desperate as we were to get home and remove the Spanx that had been smoothing out our shared imperfections! Authenticity only goes so far.
My guest’s observations brought to mind a number of conversations I’ve had recently prompted by a sincere “How are you?” The overwhelming response was something along these lines, “I’ve no right to complain. There are so many people worse off.” While I understand and applaud their awareness and empathy for others, sadly it doesn’t diminish their pain. If only we could lessen another’s suffering by minimizing our own. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. There will always be someone worse off then you, true. BUT your pain is just as real. You don’t need to choose to heap guilt on top of it. Telling everyone you’re fine doesn’t make it true. When you choose to suffer in silence, it isolates you and exacerbates the situation. Burdens are so much lighter when shared.
I think one of the biblical messages that has helped me most in life is “You are not alone.” You don’t have to necessarily join a support group, start a blog or wear your heart on your sleeve, though I’ve been known to do all three. If that’s not your style, you can always choose to be authentic with God. He doesn’t have a compassion quotient that can be exceeded. He is not bound by human limitations. He doesn’t rate the depth of your pain in relation to another’s. He isn’t fooled by appearances or self-denial. He’s never too busy. He knows what you’re going through. He wants to heal the broken-hearted and bandage wounds of every kind, but it’s our choice to humbly seek His assistance.
Much as the New Englanders in our tiny beach community feel free to air their laundry, we can all choose to do the same with select individuals or at least with the One who can and will refresh us with His healing Spirit and breathe His calming presence into our troubled souls. The One who knows exactly what is behind every “I’m F.I.N.E.” Here is just a sampling. Feel free to share your own. Mine change daily.
Freeked Out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional (Italian Job movie)
Feelings Inside Not Expressed
Feeling Insecure, Numb, Empty
Frantic, Insane, Nuts, Egotistical
Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional
Feeling Inadequate, Needing Encouragement
Fouled Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional (Aerosmith; polite form)
Foggy, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional
Fanatical, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional
Fat, Irritated, Nauseous, Exhausted (pregnant version)