Truth, I

DSC_0151Butterfly wings can be thought of as transparent: each delicate wing consists of layers of chitin so thin they are translucent. It is the layers of tiny scales on the resulting membrane that dazzle and oftentimes, through camouflage, protect the butterfly from harm. As a butterfly ages, however, those showy light-reflective scales may flake off, and the clarity of the underlying membrane can be seen.

“How are you?”

I hate that question. It’s one that Americans ask, carelessly, thoughtlessly, and continually, expecting the socially acceptable response: “Fine, thanks, how are you?”

“How are you?”

Three little words that I dread.

I have a complicated relationship with the truth. I know I should speak the truth, more often than not. My moral code has stretched in the past (and will in the future, heaven forbid) to enthusiastically and wholeheartedly lying in the face of imminent mortal danger. (Did I eat your candy, o large and enraged older sibling? No, of course I did not.) I know I should speak the truth gracefully, kindly, without the intent to use those words to cause harm or be divisive. As you grow older, especially as a graduate student in the humanities, you get to learn of all sorts of fascinating things caused by words and the ideas behind them. Great things. And horrible, horrible things. Words… and truth… they are dangerous.

“How are you?”

It’s no wonder that I shy away from answering, right? Some days I really do feel close to ok. Maybe not perfect, not 100%, definitely not like I used to feel many ages ago. But I can function. Other times I’m mentally counting down the minutes until I can take more drugs to try to control the waves of pain wracking my body, forcing myself to smile and answer the d*mn question when all I want to do is curl up into a ball. Sometimes I’m mentally a mess. Occasionally I’m on the borderlands of functionality as a single independent adult: I haven’t gone grocery shopping because I hurt too badly, I haven’t worked on my projects because I’m in too much pain to focus, I’m pretty sure that I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes or at least some of them but luckily in college that’s largely ok, I haven’t eaten all day because I feel so sick. Other times I’m already semi-curled up, holding onto myself, when I’m asked that question by an oblivious person…or worse by a kind and seeing one. It is worse when it’s someone who actually cares, and then I have to make a choice. That choice. Do I tell the truth? How much do I trust them? Is it safe to tell someone at work/school how truly terrible I feel, if we are friends as well as professional colleagues?

“How are you?”

Most of the time I can go with the acceptable grad school, “Surviving, you?” 85% of us are merely surviving and darn grateful for that. And I am surviving, occasionally by my fingernails, which are bitten down to nothing, so that’s a trick, but I am alive.

“How are you?”

Sometimes I dodge. “Lovely weather we’re having. I like your blank (insert-whatever-accessory-asker-is-wearing). Excuse me, I have to go and look at this lovely Pieris rapae.” Exits stage left, chasing cabbage butterfly.

“How are you?”

Sometimes I tell the truth. It’s all sharp edges at first, pointed elbows of fact and spikes of pain shoving through the thin and patched old clothes of social acceptability. I try not to hide in fear as sparkly scales of pretense flake away, threatening to expose me in ways I’m not sure I can handle. Quite often, I’m surprised by the response. Of people checking in, offering to help, praying for me. Yes, sometimes the attempts to help are less than perfect, as is everything we humans attempt in this messed-up world. Yes, sometimes the response is often not what I would wish… someone else’s rage and desperation at my pain, the “wait, you’re not better yet?” tack, even the awkward but well-meaning “oh, I’m sorry” and hurried change of subject, which makes me feel ashamed. Usually, though, I am less undone by someone’s unkind or thoughtless response then I am by the simple kindness of friends, family, and random strangers, some of whom offer that most precious gift without knowing even my name.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

Sometimes that is what I answer. And it’s not a lie, however much it may not be answering quite the question that poor person thought he/she was asking. My struggles are only temporary. Yes, chronic pain might last me the rest of my life on this earth (although I sure hope not). But as a Christian, I’m promised much more than that. And I am “fine.” This agony has wracked my body. It has destroyed my social calendar (someone, once: “We’ll take it easy. Early breakfast, drive to a different town, do all the shopping, go to that park and take pictures, go to the beach, go pick up some friends, out for dinner and maybe a movie, head back home.” Me: “um…I can’t. Way can’t.”) It has changed me, not just outwardly but yes, inwardly as well. But if it has removed a lot of the extraneous stuff from my life, if it has altered my perspective on seemingly innocent questions, that doesn’t mean that it has annihilated me. I am a titanium butterfly. I have a soul, a spirit. It is captured in this weak body, yes. But it is strong, holding onto the good, the promises that I believe have been made to me as a Christian, the beauty of life and light and friendship that has been so mercifully given to me. That has not changed with physical pain. I am, truly, fine.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

  ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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