Mercy for Glass Bodies
Scrolling blindly down my Facebook newsfeed I see status after status, article after article pushed out by clickbait factories scorning the needy person, rejecting the “sad bae”, scorning sensitivity while somehow also commoditizing it, Buzzfeed listicles telling you what gifts to get for the person who hates everyone, ways to stop oversharing.
There are tips on how to artfully dodge this person, tips to confront them when their hardship encroaches on your space. Each article parrots distant reassurances to the reader that they’ll be doing both parties a favor if they treat the needy people in their lives like shoelaces - tie them so tight that it pinches a bit, leave them alone, don’t think about them until they come undone again, solve the problem again. Repeat in perpetuity.
I, for one, think the concept of “oversharing” is a tool used by an ableist and graceless society to silence the voices of those who are suffering.
When you have mental illness, or live with trauma, or are merely a highly sensitive or deeply empathic person, our emotions can be too large to contain, too volatile to harness. I tend to think of us all as individual glass houses containing many smaller glass pieces, moving about on glass legs; intricately crafted and astonishingly beautiful, but breakable and sharp. While others may be able to solve and store away their problems neatly on the shelves of their own hearts, we often face our overflowing cabinets alone. The truth of it, whether we want to admit it or not, is that we all walk about with a gaping, private, hunger - walled up in the glass of our lungs, pulling at the tendons in our necks, knotting stubbornly in our shoulders. It is the hunger for true connection. We walk around with this very human hunger for feeling heard, for feeling seen, the hunger for feeling freely, feeling anything at all. Confusion, rage, loneliness, mania, suspicion, lust, apathy, faithlessness, and any and every other inclination of the human soul are poured into shining, opaque vases, lined up on the mantlepiece across our collarbones, held there by sheer force of will as thin as a hair, precariously perched. We parade around with chests stuck out in pride, displaying our as-yet unbroken vases, a testament to our faultless balance, our even and unencumbered carriage, our excellent posture. “Look! I am put together and balanced, my emotions are neatly contained!” Is what we proclaim.We mute our hearts, and whittle our feelings down to acceptable size so as to be palatable to others. In doing so, we limit ourselves.
Desperate to stay afloat in our ableist society, we make concerted and elaborate efforts to quiet our emotions, to hold back all that is painfully aflame and in flight within us, to appear as though we are truly fine. But every time, without fail, there is some slip, some fault line that cracks in our ears and it becomes impossible to hold it in.
So there also exists in each of us a very deep and very human need to trip, to slouch; to admit fatigue, anticipate defeat, break before we are broken, to heave, and let those feelings, all walled up in those shining vases, fall to the ground and shatter wildly.
We all have that need, the need to just break down. The need to see that glass break at our feet, to see the pieces scatter and see the contents run, to see our own facades disintegrate - the hunger to just stand bare and broken before the world without pretense, without feigning numbness or indifference, without immediately fixing it, and declare and we are not okay.
And in the end, what we truly want is for someone else to come along with a broom and dustpan, and sweep up the sharp ends of our own suffering, lest we bloody our hands and threaten all that is still soft within us. We hunger to fall on purpose and be caught on purpose, just before we hit the ground. Just for a moment, each of us longs to be picked up and carried like a child, so that we don’t cut our feet on the glass. Briefly suspended above this aching mortal coil, held aloft by mercy and patience, swept up into a brief respite, tucked into the heart-pocket of someone who cares enough to try.
But time and time again we find that we cannot expect that from many of the people in our lives. That mercy that we crave, the balm to our misery, is laborious and emotionally expensive, and no one has signed up for that. As a society, we no longer tend to cherish the beauty of deep, emotionally intimate friendship, because of the messy heart-work and close proximity of the soul it requires. We create and enforce this artificial distance between ourselves and other human beings that makes it socially unacceptable to name our struggle or to admit to struggling at all, for fear of being perceived as “needy”, “over dramatic”, “ungrateful”, or “whiny”. But the need to be heard, the need to be seen, really seen, persists despite our protestations and elaborate efforts to the contrary. It is sewn into our very being. We are created to need one another. The elderly die alone, abandoned babies need cuddling in hospital wards, touch hunger is a recognized human ailment. And yet we put up walls.
Why do we spurn and scorn the “needy” of all stripes? Why do we avert our gazes when the haggard, homeless man begs in the subway, smelling sharply of urine, eyes bloodshot, hands outstretched in search of a few dollars, of common mercy? Why, when our friend gets drunk and cries about her relationship or her family again, do we roll our eyes, pat her on the back, take her safely home and hope that a cotton pillowcase will be enough to stand between her and utter despair? Our college roommate calls crying after yet another audition rejection, and we tell her to suck it up, stay positive and get back out there, and that if she wasn’t prepared to deal with the rejection, she should’ve chosen a different field. She sniffs weakly, agrees, untwists the tiny knife you’ve just stuck in her side and hangs up. Why, when a child cries in public, do we let self-righetousness slither up our spine like a chill, promising ourselves: “I’d never let my child behave like that in public - I’d never let them feel, emote, break, beg”?
Why do we take the misery, the suffering of others so lightly? Because in witnessing their pain we are reminded of our own, and we are disgusted by our own. And what is it exactly that repels us about misery, about suffering, about pain? The perception of weakness.
It is the breakable-ness of it all.Our society spends a great deal of time and untold amounts marketing money on making certain we all hate weakness. Deep down, the ideology is that weakness or the appearance of weakness begets misery - if you suffer, it is your own fault and no one else’s, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will solve your whining, snowflake problems. So it follows in that (faulty) logic that strength or the appearance of strength would ward it off, or at least mask it. Trashbags, mascara, winter coats, tampons, razors, soap. Resistant. Durable. Made to last. Stronger. Better. Because who has time for rips, runs, leaks, breaks, or great howling chasms opening up in the space between your ribs? Because it's poor form to talk struggle. You’d be a bad sport if someone inquired after your wellbeing and you answered: “Actually, I’m awful”.
We avoid our own vulnerability for fear of being found out and left behind, a fear that lives on in our DNA from generations past, in which the sick and infirm were left to die without ceremony, their bodies and the space they inhabited neatly folded up and shoved out of view. We are conditioned to be disgusted by our own weaknesses, and even more so by the weaknesses of others. We apply righteous indignation and haughty rhetoric with broad strokes, pouring paint and salt into the wound until it has sealed, raw and red, over its own pain, invisible to the naked eye, the hardship masked. The idea that we abide weakness in anyone or anything else comes to be a reflection on ourselves, our perceived strength or lack thereof. We are, after all, animals: as such we hunger to belong to the group, to walk with the pack, to blend seamlessly. So we distance ourselves, we turn our backs on the suffering members of our tribe, cozy up to the dominant rhetoric, say “hey, that’s the way it is sometimes” and fall back in line. Is it Darwinism at work within us?
We close the door on our own weakness as early as we dare, the first time we are teased for crying over a skinned knee on the playground, lest we be taunted for our “sensitivity”, which is coded in our society as weakness. But is it not sensitivity that separates us from lower mammals? Emotional self preservation, the constant practice of empathy, an indwelling softness - emotion, intelligence and the merging of the two. That is what makes us human, but we have been conditioned, generally, to gravitate to outward indicators of strength, and in turn to see those specific indicators of strength as the ideal state of being. In some ways (evolutionarily, for example) it makes perfect sense, but is it always right? This current social tendency towards relentless positivity has resulted in an almost pathological cultural adoration of strength, even if it is (or must be) feigned. “What a professional, you couldn’t even tell anything was wrong!”, “She always has such a positive attitude, even when times are tough - she’s a real champ”, “He really came through even when he wasn’t feeling well. What a trooper”, “She kept her head down and hustled and it was hard, but she pushed through” over and over again until strong people commit suicide and we all pretend to be confused.
We are not soldiers, we are not prize fighters, we are not champion racehorses. To go, work, go, struggle, go, smile, go, try, go until we merely break and die from overuse is not man’s chief end. Fake it until you make it. Fake it till you make it is an ideology that encourages us to ignore, hide, or deal “privately” (alone, crying) with the messier, harder, more painful matters of this life. In order to appear “professional” we must be smiley or at least pleasant, so that all whom we encounter can be assured that all is well, even when it very certainly is not. We create a facade of positivity that erects arbitrary walls and spaces between us and deliberately dulls the sharpness (and with it, the inherent humanity) of human interaction, all the while, the trauma and untouched emotion continues to unravel behind our eyes. We are expected to feign what we lack and to then somehow, quietly, internally and as if by magic, manufacture whatever it is that we feign. From the ragged sand of our dry and cracked hearts, and from the starving rock at the bottom of turning stomachs we are expected to dig up fortitude and build a sturdy monument to our own self-reliance.
Fake it until you make it. Pretend to be okay until you can make yourself okay. Make yourself okay. Our culture's pathological obsession with "personal responsibility" makes it so that those of us with imbalanced brains can place the blame on no one else, and that we must join up like lemmings and plaster on a smile in order to be worthy. The mere concept of “Fake it till you make it” reeks of social darwinism - what if we do not have the emotional capacity to “fake it”? And what if we lack, and will continue to lack, the neural pathways and synapses and properly balanced chemicals to “make it”? It is survival of the fittest microscopically applied to our every cognitive untethering. If you cannot leave the house to work because of your anxiety, you must not be fit for social life among humans. If your depression weighs so heavily on you that you burst into tears regularly, then perhaps you are not worth being around. Only the strong survive, therefore only the strong are worthy, so let’s all agree on a barbecue sauce in which to roast the weaklings, yes?
For many of us, whether we like it or not, our every walking, waking moment is too real, too heavy, too bright, too difficult, too tear-filled and too loud to feign indifference toward or pretend immunity from. "Faking it" requires emotional runway that we do not have, cannot create, and cannot even foresee having or creating. Our peers subscribe to the system, trade in their pain for alleged gain, excel at being okay, achieve new heights. We are then left on the pavement, earthbound, watching as our peers soar away from us in aircrafts fashioned from their own pretendings, their own buried pain.
We are conditioned to seek out the strong people, the strong things, the strong feelings, and cling to them in the hopes that we will be spared from the oncoming storm. Sometimes, however, visible strength is merely a facade supported by the hollow beams of doubt and fear. We brag about how we keep it real, how truthful we are to ourselves and others, but do you allow the people around you to name and harness their suffering without telling them to “hang in there”, or “suck it up”? Or do you go one step further, and listen to their struggles only exhale sharply through your teeth, lean back in your chair and declare “It be like that sometimes”, or “It’s tough out there”, or “That sucks”. Those of us who feel all things deeply, those of us with imbalanced brains, those of us who walk in trauma - we are at the constant mercy (or lack thereof) of those who do not.You claim you don’t have time for “drama”, but is it really drama? What is rehearsed about the constant and repeated fracturing of the life of your friend, or even yourself? Do you sit with your friend and hold their hands even when you had to be in the car 20 minutes ago? When she complains about the same man for the millionth time, do you chide her and pressure her, or do you continue to offer her gentle advice? When your friend cancels your plans for the third time because of his anxiety, do you forgive him and try again, or do you tell him to stop wasting your time?
We don’t need tough love. Tough love breeds silence and a dangerous, misguided brand of “independence” that tells a person that they cannot and should not ask for help or support. We need soft love. Love that uses kindness, compassion and grace to steer ourselves and our loved ones on to better days. We must, instead, move in mercy.
Moving in mercy means to hell with “fake it till you make it”. Let us instead say “Feel it while you live it”. Because if you do not feel it while you live it, it will crystallize and turn arthritic in your joints, it will grow gelatinous and become glued to the walls of your arteries, it will hide in all the dusty corners of your heart that you do not bother to polish because guests will not see. It will coat your stomach with black ache, it will be your ruin from the inside out. So grab tight hold of the pulsing consciousness within you that demands you endure the waves of your own life. Experience it in real time as it courses through you, even if it is scary, or inconvenient, or difficult - these are the revolutions of the Earth and moon, these are the true hills and valleys of human life, this is the fullness of humanity - and to experience the full range of human emotion is to be fully alive, even if those emotions leave you breathless. This is why the love and kinship and friendship of others is crucial to our survival - and this is why we cannot be afraid to overshare, or to share at all.
The message must always be
one of worth. of love.
Because even if we find ourselves
Consistently unmoored by chemical imbalances of the brain,
Or slowed by the weight of trauma,
Or simply lonely and fearful,
it must be continually repeated that we are worthy even in weakness.
We must dare to say to each other and to ourselves, “Your Misery is worthy of My Mercy"
The Gospel of Saint John reads as follows: "Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friend”. This verse is beloved by many Christians, myself included, and held up as an example of the kind of sacrificial love we believe Jesus had for us and that we in turn must have for one another - loyal, sacrificial, daring to love even unto death. But this commandment can be fulfilled beyond the battlefield, beyond the threat of physical harm or death, beyond stepping in front of a bullet intended for another.
Our modern lives are comprised of increasingly smaller, incredibly numerous moving parts that, ironically push us towards the goal of a “streamlined” life. You wake up in the morning, check your phone for the news and the time, open your email to respond to a request for a meeting sent in the middle of the night, order your Uber and your Starbucks in the same second, listen to music in your headphones while someone else does their job by driving you to your job, sit down at your desk and make plans with a acquaintance for that evening…it all blends seamlessly. Contemporary social trends, formal and informal, love to champion “streamlined”, “seamless” living, where “fuss” and “hassle” is eliminated. But eliminating “fuss” and “hassle” have come to mean reeling in (or cutting altogether) the decidedly human aspects of our existence - we can go whole days without speaking to another human being, if we so choose. And when we do speak to one another, it is hardly out of a desire for connection - it is, more often than not, cursory: a tight-lipped “thank you” to the Uber driver, a polite nod to the doorman, the briefest eye contact with a stranger on the street, which we quickly break.
But “streamlined”, “sleek” lives leave no room for stray hairs plastered to sweaty faces, runaway tears held back for far too long, unruly emotions that fray like errant threads at the wrists of a well worn sweater. But when we move to meet misery with mercy, it can mean laying down the minutiae of your life - lay down your phone, lay down your work, lay down your plans - lay down all that dislodges you from the breathing, current Earth, from the very real pulse running through your best friend’s shaking hand as she cries to you for the millionth time, and engage. We throw that word around in a pitiful way, “engage”, so much so that it has been rendered trite and almost entirely devoid of meaning.
To truly engage is to leave your house in a rainstorm and take food over to your friends home so that you can cook for her while she is in the midst of a depressive episode. To truly engage is to give grace to the person who stepped on your foot in the subway, to look them in the eye and say “Don’t worry, I’ve got another!”
To truly engage is to talk with the elderly lady on the bus, and to go the extra four stops to her stop with her to make sure she gets home okay.
To truly engage is to wear the mantle of boundless kindness and uncommon mercy, of honest devotion, and to wrap others in that mantle with reckless love.
Don’t fear breaking open and spilling. Don’t fear leaking. Fear airtight containers, fear freezing, fear congealing into something unrecognizable, fear the numbness of a glass body. Move in mercy towards yourself and others and break, bend, leak, spill into the arms, heart and ears of those who truly care for you, those who will be there to sweep up your broken pieces and help you put yourself back together. Let mercy be twice as common as misery.