There is a saying making the rounds of Facebook that I can’t get out of my mind: Strong people know how to keep their life in order. Even with tears in their eyes, they still manage to say, “I’m okay” with a smile.
Are these really signs of a strong person? If so, I must be the weakest person alive. I have no idea how to keep my life in order; to be honest, I don’t even know what that means. But it’s the second sentence that really has me flummoxed because when I’m not okay, I don’t lie and say I am.
If you have tears in your eyes out in public where someone can see you, and that someone asks how you are, and you respond, “I’m okay” with a smile, you have just closed them out. That’s not a sign of strength. It might be a sign of having reached your limits. It might be that you don’t feel comfortable telling your troubles to a stranger. It might be that you’re feeling sorry for yourself and are ashamed. It might even be the proper response depending on the circumstances, but it’s not strength.
If you say, “I’m okay” with a smile to people you know, that’s a sign of weakness. Strength is letting people in. Letting them know the truth of you.
Think about it — how would you feel if someone you knew well said they were okay, and you later found out they were dying of cancer? You’d feel shut out, regretful of the words left unspoken, sorry for hugs not given. But when it comes to your own drama, you prefer to simply say you’re okay.
It takes strength to allow people a place in your trauma, so if you want to dismiss people’s concerns by saying “I’m okay” with or without a smile, that’s fine. You might even feel as if you are protecting them from hurt, but what you are doing is protecting yourself from the blessings that come from allowing others into the center of your life.
We’ve been raised in a code-of-the-west culture where it’s considered important not to complain, to keep your troubles to yourself, never to quit, to tough things out. I don’t advocate complaining for the sake of complaining, but telling the truth about how you are feeling or what you are going through to a sympathetic listener is an important step towards healing. It takes strength to show vulnerability, to go against those ingrained ideals.
Saying “I’m okay” with tears and a smile seems like a recipe for loneliness. Come to think of it, isn’t being alone part of that western code? Maybe it’s time to find a different definition of what a strong person is.
(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.