So I write this on the evening of yet another birthday, a day that seems to arrive more quickly with each passing year. I have never been a fan of birthdays and maybe that makes me the odd one out. I have always felt a sense of sadness, of being alone on my birthday. And it’s not for lack of attention because people shower me with love and affection. My mother, of course, and my darling dad when he was still here. My sisters. My great kid. My friends.
And now, with the advent of social media, more people than ever reach out to me on my birthday and say such lovely things, things I’m quite sure I can’t measure up to but which are nonetheless so deeply appreciated and treasured. On days when I’m not at my best, I take a virtual walk down the memory lane of Facebook and see the words the special people in my life have written and they help me deal with whatever I’m dealing with, or remind me that I am important to some people, that I matter in this world which is so filled with transitory images and useless knowledge and endless rhetoric. And I thank people for that with the grateful face I show to the world.
But we all have two faces, don’t we? The face we put on when we leave the house in the morning, to deal with what the world has to throw at us that day. The face we put on for the public even when we’re struggling with sadness, or coping with an illness, or worn out from too much worry, or stressed because we can’t turn our minds off. Because – and maybe it’s just me – I think we’re all programmed to some extent to be brave in public, be stoic, be assured, be calm. When you ask someone how they are, do we ever expect to get an answer other than “fine”?
What if someone really said to you what they were really feeling behind that public face. What if they said to you, I’m awful. I’m in pain. I’m brokenhearted. I’m weak. I’m disillusioned. I’m hurting. I’ve been betrayed. I’m angry. I’m sick. I need help. I need you. What would you do? What would anyone of us do?
Our lives are lived sometimes inside a little bubble that shields us, we think, from the bad stuff. We assemble a house of cards to try and make our lives appear to others – or maybe even to ourselves – that all is well, that we are safe and sound. And that will get you so far for so long. But it only takes a single pin to pop our bubble of security or a tiny gust of wind to knock down the house of cards, to open the doors and let the light shine into the dark corners of the stuff, big and small, we never share with others.
Why do we do that? Are we afraid of being perceived as weak? Do we think others have burdens worse than ours so we don’t want to contribute to the load they carry? Is it pride, or shame, or guilt, or fear, or the hope that tomorrow may just be the day when the page turns, the dawn breaks, the worries subside. Maybe it’s all of those things. Or maybe – as one of my very smart DC girls once told me – we live in a world where there are too many Eleanor Rigbys. (I promised you, Dolores, that I would never forget that and I never have and I never will). All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?
Right now I am struggling, trying to manage too many crises, juggling too many things, trying hard, trying harder and solving nothing. Right now, as I take stock of where I am now and where I was on my last birthday, it’s hard not to be discouraged. I have trusted foolishly, I fear. I have made some good decisions but also some bad ones, terrible ones. I have succeeded in a tiny writing career this year, a passion I’ve had since I was a teenager and one which I have finally been able to explore with a little success, more in the way of accolades that financially. I have survived the scare of an illness and been given a new appreciation of life and its random nature and its ever-dwindling days.
I am a deeply religious person, a very spiritual being. I go to church regularly. I say my prayers every day and I never ask for anything for myself from God except to please show me the way. I try to live a good life every day. I make mistakes but I try not to make them again. I am surrounded by so many examples of courage and grace and strength and hope that it makes me ashamed that I am not stronger or braver or more determined right now than I am.
Not that long ago, I talked to my Mom, bemoaning the fact that I was alone. Telling her I was tired of living in a world full of couples. Not everyone you see as a couple is happy, she told me. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, she said. And she’s right, of course. But still, I see the public faces of happy couples and I wonder why not me? I spent too many years married to someone who I shouldn’t have been. The man I loved more than any other became sick, became sicker and was gone in a few months and there is still a spot in my heart where he resides and always will. Another man I trusted cheated me, stole from me, ruined me, a setback I am still recovering from all these years later. But I survived all that. I have to believe that there’s got to be something still ahead of me, some person who will love me the way my Dad loved my Mom, the way my cousin Dom adored my cousin Cooky, the way I see so many of my friends talk about their husbands or partners or boyfriends.
And so far there hasn’t been and maybe there won’t be. And maybe it’s just because it’s my annual take-stock-of-your-life inventory that causes me to wonder. To lower my guard. To show you the face that is never out there in public. To share my insecurities, my hopes, my fears, my worries. Maybe tomorrow I’ll regret it. But for tonight, I’d like to think that maybe it will inspire you to not hide behind the mask of happiness when you have a day where you really need someone to hold your hand, to tell you tomorrow will be better. Maybe it will convince you that showing vulnerability, asking for help, sharing your woes is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Strength because you are reaching across that bridge of being uninvolved that we all hesitate to cross. Strength because you are saying to others that you don’t want to live the solitary life, detached and afraid to reach out. Strength because you realize that being Eleanor Rigby is no way to go through this life when there are so many hands to lift you up, so many voices to say the right thing, so many ears waiting to listen, so many hands to hold yours, so many arms to hug you, so many prayers waiting to be said for you.
So remember that it’s okay to let the world look at your other face. Trust that you are not in this alone. Remember that we are all a community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of shared experiences and hopes and dreams and fears. Try to see behind the face that I show you, that everyone shows you. Because I think we all, deep down, want to let someone else in.