Friday, December 7, 2012

Breaking Down

Let me take you back to a day about fourteen years ago. I'm standing on the blacktop basketball court in front of my elementary school's playground staring at the sky. The clouds above me are a murky grey, ominously promising rainfall. I wonder what the clouds must feel like. Are they soft like my stuffed animals?

A dozen other six year olds are scrambling around me, lining up to go inside after recess.  
"Come on, Alexandra!" my teacher calls to me from down the sidewalk.

I tear my gaze away from the clouds, completely dazed. My teacher motions with her arms for me to hurry up. With a glance back up at the expansive heavens I say a secret goodbye to my cloud imaginations. I begin to take a step toward my teacher then–WHAM–my body slams face-first into the solid cold concrete.

"Move!" yells a voice behind me as a girl from my class pushes over my fallen body.

At first, I am too shocked to even move. Then, it comes: the pain. First it's just a light stinging in my forehead, then I feel the giant lump on my left cheek beginning to form, and finally I realize that the skin on my knees has broken open and notice the warm blood dripping down my tiny legs like water from a leaky faucet. And I can barely breathe. I can barely breathe because it hurts so bad. 

After reprimanding my attacker and promising the child a punishment when we get back to the classroom, my teacher runs over to me.

"Oh, sweetie! Are you okay?!" she asks me in astonishment.

I can't talk. I'm using all of my willpower to keep myself composed.

My teacher looks at me with those all-knowing adult eyes and realizes how close I am to falling apart.

"Alexandra, you can cry, honey!" she whispers to me as she leans down to help me off the ground.

I take her hand but shake my head. "No," I say, "I don't cry at school."

And it was true. As much as I could possibly avoid it, I didn't. I'm not sure how it started, but even as a first grader I had this conviction. 

Don't cry at school. Don't cry at school. Don't cry at school.

It was a motto I more or less lived by. And as I got older, the motto expanded and became, "Don't cry at school, or in front of your friends, or in public. Ever." 

At eight, I fell at my friend's skating birthday party and fractured my wrist. My face grew boiling hot with the pain, but I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. Later, in middle and high school, I'd often feel gripped with the pain of being the subject of snide comments or false rumors spread by the people I called friends. And it would hurt. It would hurt so badly. But as much as I could help it, I wouldn't let the public see my tears.

Today,  there's a part of me that still tries to hold onto those old mottos of childhood. "Don't cry in front of people!" my mind shouts at me whenever I am on the verge of falling a part. 

But last summer in Swaziland my eyes saw and my heart felt far too much for me to be able to live very effectively by my motto anymore.

I saw distended bellies protruding from dust-covered shirts. I saw the tattered shoes worn by seven year olds who walked three miles to get a meal for the day. I saw the rickety roofs and crumbling walls of one-room structures that were inhabited by five or six people, but completely empty of any furniture or material belongings.I saw dozens of beds crammed together in a big open room, filled with sick children, some of whom I know have gone up to heaven by now. I saw the sparkling eyes of a twelve year old boy and heard his sweet soft voice uttering, "That was beautiful." as a friend and I sang to him at his bedside.

I saw the pain. I saw it clearly. But I also saw the joy.

I saw children with smiles so vibrant it was almost breathtaking. I heard the cheers of the boys on the soccer field and the shrieks of laughter from the girls as we each took a turn dancing in the middle of a big open circle. I heard the tremendous voices of children singing the most heart-felt praise to God. 

I saw gratitude. I saw faith. I saw love.

And so, a few weeks ago, when I stood in front of the building that contained my classroom on a murky grey day much like the one I experienced at age six, I was hit, quite suddenly, with the realization of all that I had left behind in Swaziland. 

My classmates were bustling past me, my teacher stood a little ways down the sidewalk and I was stuck, feeling that white-hot pain that makes it impossible for me to breathe.

"Don't cry at school!" my six year old self shouted in my mind.

But, I couldn't listen. I couldn't obey. I couldn't follow my motto anymore.

All I could do in that moment was cry. And as the first glimmers of shame and embarrassment crept into my mind, I realized right then that crying in front of people wasn't going to destroy me. I realized that there are magnificently huge pits of exquisite emotion within all of us and that sometimes keeping these pits tucked away and hidden is not only an overwhelmingly impossible task, but, in fact, is a disservice to the world.

In that moment of breaking down on the sidewalk in front of my classmates and teacher, I let more than just my emotions fly out of me. I let out my story. I shared part of what makes me who I am and I had to be frighteningly vulnerable to do it. But, instead of this locking me in a prison of shame as I had expected it to for all of those years, I found that it was in breaking down, that I was finally able to set my story free. 

And now, I can only wonder what the world would be like if all of us, instead of being gripped by the fear of vulnerability, were flooded by the power that comes from showing the world exactly who we are.

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