I used to think any time I shared anything other than positive, faith-filled thoughts, I needed to make sure it was all neatly tied up at the end with a faith-affirming thought because to express anything other than positivity was not constructive and could undermine the faith of others. I no longer believe that.
My practice of wrapping everything up with "but since I have faith in God's plan and know God is with me, everything will turn out for the best if I am humbly doing my best and have faith, so I needn't fear, and that's all I need to know" was fine and dandy for everyone else. But even though I truly meant it, and it was truly all I needed to not just carry on but press forward with energy and happiness, when the comfort of those thoughts eventually (we're talking years) waned somewhat in certain ways, despite every effort to "be strong and faithful" and to maintain and testify of "an eternal perspective", I found myself in the unfortunate position of being everyone else's strength with nobody to be mine except an intangible being in whom I believed but whose eyes I couldn't see, whose physical touch I couldn't feel, whose companionship I could only experience in the abstract, which had always been enough. I cringed when I realized the old Barbara Streisand song I'd never liked suddenly made some sense: people who need people indeed. Maybe God was teaching me to connect with others more completely, I thought, sending me out the front door to learn to play with the other kids. Maybe I was wondering whether I was supposed to be learning more about myself and life from my conflicts rather than setting them aside as mere temptations, and I had a notion that God was compelling me to face them more starkly. Or maybe I was experiencing a sort of existential crisis of realizing that people of many other religions relied on basically the same idea of God being with them, too, and pondering on the meaning implicit in that. Maybe it was some mix of the above.
Everyone had always told me what a strength I was, how amazing my outlook was, how much they were buoyed by my pure, simple faith in the gospel. They were so glad someone dared to speak the plain and simple truth and wasn't caught up in the artificial shades of grey or mired by worldly concerns or worries of the flesh which are eternally inconsequential. I was given pause a couple of times when bishops seemed almost incredulously impressed by something I said, and I wondered why it should be so rare as to surprise them, or a mission president gave a faint hint of an expression as if to say, "Your simple faith is a great asset for now, but one day, that simplicity is going to be rocked, and you're going to see beyond the neat and tidy answers, but I'm not going to be the one to break it to you because your innocence is beautiful." I often had a vague feeling that maybe, in some way, I had yet to learn or experience some things and might see what others seemed to see, but that even if that was true, I wasn't going to let that alter my simple faith in the power of God to help us overcome all things.
What I didn't realize was that, though there were many who craved my positive words and focus on "just have faith, and all will be well," there were many others who silently believed my simplistic approach was as harmful as it was helpful, and though they most often didn't give me a chance to prove otherwise, they were sure I wouldn't understand their situation. They were sure I'd give them some prescription to take two of these and call me in the morning. They were sure I'd just tell them to smile and everything would be OK. I knew better by my post-mission years. At least, in a detached way I did. I understood that some people's issues required more than a positive pep-talk or a reminder that God was with them. They had issues beyond what most of us had confronted at that age. They had complications, sometimes from their own decisions, often from actions of others, which clearly required, in addition to God's healing, professional help or the perspective of someone who understood firsthand what they were going through. I wished I could know what they'd been through to help them, but I knew I just hadn't been there, and someone else was better equipped to walk with them.
Maybe my own life became more complicated. Maybe I complicated my life in my head. Maybe faith that things would work out was fine and dandy until I really confronted a possible life alone or felt the sting of losing my youth and desirability and let doubt creep in out of fear and desperation that it might not be worth the sacrifice. Maybe losing another great girl because I couldn't fall in love with her brought up questions I'd shoved under the rug believing "it's OK if I don't know all the answers now", and now some of those questions didn't seem so optional after all. Maybe I realized my "faith" had really been a refusal to truly, honestly consider what might be reality. Maybe my old coping mechanisms of "just keep swimming" and "remember the eternal perspective" were worn out and ineffective after so long.
I no longer believe I undermine someone's faith or optimism by admitting I'm down or struggling. I no longer believe I must wait until resolution before expressing conflict and confusion, even doubt. I believe there's value in openly needing as well as offering strength and perspective with other people. I believe there's value in expressing struggles without tidying it up, to reflect on it openly rather than alone, so people have the opportunity to help you in kind, and so you don't get caught up in the notion that it's only OK to be struggling as long as it's not a "real" struggle but is already resolved or in the past. I believe getting overly focused on putting on a happy face or constantly affirming everyone else's faith often leads to a lack of authenticity without the burden-bearer even realizing it. I believe there's something beautiful about saying, "I know I'm usually very positive, but...I'm struggling, and I don't want to discount God's help because he has offered it abundantly, but I need people, too, who can walk with me, hold me, share with me, mourn with me, and rejoice with me."
But there's no need to pretend to be struggling more than you are (or are aware) just to seem authentic. And there is something beautiful about trying to find the positive in even the crappiest situations. There's something so good-hearted and lovable about a person who wants to help lift others up and give them hope in some small or significant way. There's honor in finding solutions out of problems and seeking ways to move forward with optimism rather than letting the muck hold you back.
Authenticity, self-discovery, acknowledgement of struggle, faith, perspective, recognition of harsh reality, disillusionment, joy, hope, resting, pressing forward...we're all at varying points of balance at different times, and maybe it's OK and even good that we're all balanced a bit differently from each other. And running into people who are more positive reminds me to focus on the positive as well, even if I have my suspicions about the sustainability of their brand of optimism. While letting people know it's not all skipping in sunny fields of flowers, it's OK to skip sometimes, too, when I feel like it. In any case, I probably don't present my life and situation immaculately packaged and neatly tied up in a pretty bow, but I was always more interested in what was inside the package, anyway.