Could you please pass the mustard?
I burned my finger taking a casserole out of the oven a while back. It was a Friday night, and some old friends were visiting. “Ouch!” I yelped, because I couldn’t help it; but I was in the kitchen all by myself, so no one heard me. It really hurt, but calling everyone’s attention to this newly burning pain was not my first response. Instead, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t been more careful, so I blamed myself rather than the hot oven. Also, since these were friends we hadn’t seen in a long time and I wanted to make a good impression, I chose not to interrupt the smooth flowing conversation in the other room. Instead, I made myself a glass of ice water to drink and held it so the tip of my finger was submerged in the cold liquid.
I walked in to announce the start of our meal, feeling clever about my solution and hopeful that no one else would notice. But the stinging wouldn’t stop. I tried really hard to ignore it, but that didn’t work either. When we finally sat down to eat I couldn’t bear it anymore so I hopped up and went to the fridge for mustard. I pulled the lid off and stuck my finger in the top of the jar until it was finely coated. Ah, finally, relief.
When I came back to the table I showed my friends my yellow tipped finger and apologized for how gross it looked. “This may seem like a silly home remedy,” I told them, “but it really works.” Then I explained that I’d burned my finger ten minutes earlier. Mike smiled graciously, and his wife Amy said she would have to remember that cure for herself, the next time she got burned in the kitchen. Pretty soon we went back to talking about our kids and our jobs and all the places we’d lived in the last twenty years.
The whole ten minutes my finger was hurting I knew exactly what would make it feel better. I even had the remedy close at hand, but I didn’t want to have to stop and take care of the situation. I didn’t want people to know I even had a situation, because I was afraid of what they might think… about my inability to pull hot dishes from the oven. It sounds silly now, but I don’t always think clearly when I’m distracted by pain. And I have a hunch that I’m not the only one.
Why is it that when something bad happens, our first response is to act like it’s no big deal? Is it some inborn sense of independent pride? Is it our inability to be honest about what a mess we all are? Or is it because, deep down, we don’t think there’s anything that will help? Why risk sharing your hurt with someone who might laugh at your clumsiness? Why tell someone you’re in pain when they might ignore it, or worse, advise you to “just get over it”? Why ask for relief if there’s none to be found?
Perhaps that’s the real fear behind our bravado. Why? Because we’ve all been let down before. It happens to everyone. In fact, it starts when you’re just a baby. Not all parents intentionally hurt their children, but all parents are people, just like you and me, so they’re bound to make a mistake now and again. It’s inevitable. Pain is part of the human package, and we all know it. We expect it even. But still, we try to avoid it whenever we can.
But what if you could choose your pain? Wouldn’t you pick the kind that leads to healing instead of infection? If you knew you had poisonous snake venom in your veins, wouldn’t you want someone to administer the shot that would cure you? Or would you say, “Nah, I’ll take my chances with this bite here. I don’t know where that needle has been.”
And yet that’s what we often do with our emotional pain. Yes, there’s always a risk you’ll pick the wrong person to help you — I’ve certainly done that before. But I also spent the first twenty-three years of my life pretending that everything was fine and normal, and that didn’t work either.
“Whatever is denied cannot be healed,” Brendan Manning once wrote, and I think he knew what he was talking about — because we all need help sometimes. We all have problems and issues and pain. No one is happy all the time; no matter what her social media accounts says.
Many people advise us to pray about our pain. They say Jesus is the only one who will never let us down. He’s perfect after all, and he promises to never leave us or forsake us, they say. And you know what? I think they’re right. But I don’t believe praying is the only thing I’m supposed to do, because I don’t think Jesus works exclusively by himself all the time. If he does, then why are there so many other people living here on earth with me? If it was only ever about me and him, why did he put me in a family in the first place? Why didn’t he just set me up on my own tiny planet with just the two of us, where we could both live happily ever after?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, and I won’t pretend I understand every part of God’s master plan here on planet earth. I just know that when I was at my lowest low, when I couldn’t believe God heard me anymore, when I didn’t think he even saw me, let alone cared about me; he put someone in my life who showed me, not just told me, some really good news. This news was not that I could learn how to become a better person and stop burning myself with a hot casserole dish. Instead, the good news – the gospel that Jesus preached – was that whenever I did do something clumsy, God would love me anyway, just as I was, mustard covered finger and all.
That good news was the best news I’d ever heard. Really. But I don’t know how it would’ve happened if I hadn’t reached out for help first. If I hadn’t admitted to myself that I really needed help. If I hadn’t told my friend, who then referred me to her therapist, I might never have found the help I needed. But guess what? Sixteen years later, I still worry what people might think of me if they find out I’m hurting. I’m still afraid to be vulnerable in front of others. I still try to manage my wounds all by myself, at first anyway.
But that Friday evening with my friends reminded me that my first response doesn’t have to be my only response. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, I don’t have to pretend anymore. Even if I’m afraid, I can still come out of hiding. I can still choose to tell someone, “Hey, I feel really embarrassed by this; but I could use a little help here.”
Sometimes people shake their heads and go on about their business. Sometimes people give me half-hearted advice that makes me feel worse than I did before I told them. Sometimes people don’t have much to say at all, but they still listen, they still tell me they understand. And sometimes, after awhile, they start telling me about some of things they’ve been hiding, too. Then we stop and take a look at each other, and at this beautiful planet we’re both living on and think, “Huh, maybe this whole set-up isn’t so bad after all.”
Maybe. I can’t say for sure. But I can say that sitting down and eating with my friends was way better than hiding alone in the kitchen.