A wonderful, happy, seemingly well-adjusted young person commits suicide, and everyone is in shock.
We don’t understand what happened. Nothing seems to line up or make sense. To the masses there was no inkling that something was wrong.
And yet what is glaringly clear is that there is a space between the way things seem and the way they often really are.
We live in a world that likes things to look simple and neat. That likes to assume that things are the way they appear to be. That what you see is what you get. There is the student who excels in school and everything comes easy, the peer with hundreds (if not more) of Facebook friends, the guy with the fantastic job, the apartments mates with the smoothest relationship, the glowing newly engaged couple, the family with the idyllic well behaved kids and of course those that go on those picture perfect vacations.
We wonder why it is that things seem more complicated in our own lives, all the while oblivious to the image that we project to those around us and the way others perceive the life that we live.
I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram, but every time I share a picture on my extended family WhatsApp group, I wonder if it should be followed up with the picture I didn’t take. The one where my kids were fighting or complaining they were bored, or maybe the one where I totally lost it on them. And when a teacher or friend, praises one of my children, I wonder if I should balance out the picture for them or just leave it looking all nice and rosy.
As a teacher of young women, I try to share a lot of real life stories about real life struggles that real life people face. Stories about challenges in adolescence, rocky relationships, doubts during the engagement and after. I try to prepare them that not everyone has an easy time finding a life partner, not everyone has children and not everyone is successful at everything all the time. I tell them that perceptions are deceiving and that life is complex for everyone.
We all know it, and yet we don’t always accept it. We prefer to gloss over challenges and do our best to project perfection and strength while also demanding it, however implicitly, of others. We’re not always ready or willing to hear about the difficulties in others’ lives, and we often hesitate ourselves in sharing the challenges in ours.
And yet they remain.
There are young adults struggling with all kinds of things. Performance in school, anxieties, philosophical questions that eat away at them, sexual abuse, eating disorders, loneliness, divorce, depression, questions of sexual identity, OCD, neglectful parents, religious direction, special needs siblings, and sometimes just the overwhelming feeling of needing to make a major life decision.
As adults, we additionally need to juggle all of our personal struggles together with those of spouses or children. We wonder what our children’s decisions or behavior says about us. And we feel their pain deeply without always being able to help them. My mother once told me, “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” As parents, we are left trying to balance that heaviness with our own emotional world and need to function.
Years ago, my husband and I and our two small children were driving up the New Jersey Turnpike in the snow when our car spun out 360 degrees, crossing the other lanes and coming to a stop on the shoulder next to the barrier in the middle of the highway. In what I believe was an absolute miracle, we didn’t hit anyone, and no one hit us. But I was traumatized by the thought that in an instant we could have all been gone.
It took me four years to admit that I needed help. That those few minutes had effected my experience of driving every time I got into a car. That they had shattered my sense of control of my fragile and vulnerable existence.
I didn’t think to seek out help because I am a strong and together person. I thought I could handle it on my own. After all, I knew what happened and it made sense to me that it was affecting me. I didn’t think anyone or anything would make it better. And I was also frustrated with myself that it was turning into a bigger deal than I had wanted.
But there are things in life — bigger and smaller — that are beyond us. And we can’t be afraid to seek out assistance from those around us who can make a difference. Family members, friends, mentors, and professionals. We can’t be afraid to share and to talk and let others into our internal world. There are people out there who can make a life changing impact, if we let them.
We can’t be afraid of weakness or struggle. We need to accept and expect complexity in ourselves and in others. We need to develop the ability to see when others are in pain and to be there for them. And we need to find the balance between demanding of ourselves and knowing when we have reached our limits.
We can’t be afraid of the fact that things are not always picture perfect.
Better that the picture be less perfect and the reality be more manageable.