For awhile, I was on a roll, planning and pre-writing a bunch of blog posts about how some of the things people criticize as a sign of weakness are really nothing of the sort. Perhaps I will still write those posts. But today I can’t help remembering that there is such a thing as human frailty. We get sick. We struggle. We fall down. We fail. Sometimes life has a way of beating us up and leaving us feeling broken and bleeding. Sometimes we literally are broken and bleeding.
Sometimes we need help.
My first child was born by c-section. He was, to put it mildly, not a good sleeper. For the first three months of his life, I never slept more than an hour and a half at a stretch, and rarely more than an hour. I was so sleep-deprived that I could barely function, and it was overwhelming just to take care of the baby, do laundry, and put dinner on the table every night. Not only was I exhausted, but I had what no one recognized until later as quite a serious case of postpartum depression. (At the time, I had no idea you could be head over heels with joyful love over your baby and depressed at the same time…until the fog lifted.) In addition, something had gone wrong during the spinal, and I had alarming bouts of pain and strange electrical shock like sensations going up and down my spine for over a year. My abdominal muscles had been so damaged that the surgeon had afterwards gone into near hysterics, insisting, “I didn’t cut your stomach muscles! I didn’t cut them! You need to know that I didn’t sever any muscles!” Since my spinal hadn’t even worn off yet at the time he repeatedly made his frantic claim, it seemed a bizarre and out of the blue thing for him to get so upset and almost hyperventilate over. In fact, it took months for me to discover that my abdominal weakness and pain was not normal. On top of all that, and while minor compared to everything else, my external scar was uncomfortable and never healed properly.
Physically and emotionally, I felt like a wreck. But life had left me with a dangerous motto of “Show no weakness!” During those early weeks, I entertained and even cooked for a steady stream of guests, supervised a major data entry project for my husband’s business, traveled out of town with the baby for a weekend while sick with two separate infections, did all the housework except for the mopping and vacuuming which the doctor had strictly forbidden, kept up with all the laundry including cloth diapers, and — after the first week or so — cooked all the dinners. It was insane. As a result, my healing and recovery from surgery took longer than it should have, and my immune system took a beating, which only made things worse for me.
My unwillingness to allow others to see my weakness was, in itself, a form of weakness.
We were not designed to carry every burden all by ourselves, nor to soldier on all alone until we drop. We were designed to live and function in community. We were designed to give and receive help — and it is not weakness to recognize we need help, and to seek out someone willing and able to help us.
It took a wonderful and wise group of mothers to convince me that I did no one any favors, least of all my baby, by pretending to be The Heroic Supermom Who Stands Alone Against All Odds. It took a near collapse on my part that left me sobbing in the arms of a woman I’d just met moments before to admit that things were too much for me. That didn’t make me weak — it meant the burden was overwhelmingly heavy. No wonder I struggled.
Years later, I watched two very strong men carry our heavy oak bookcases up our stairs. Neither of them attempted to carry a bookcase all by himself. No one thought them weak because they couldn’t carry their load unaided. Some things are more than one person can carry, and we all knew the oak bookcases were heavy. Later, when a terrible illness debilitated one of the men, no one would have expected him to carry anything in his weakened state.
My husband had never had major abdominal surgery. I was not much of a complainer, which left him thinking it must not be a big deal. Because I shielded him from much of the reality of life with a sleepless newborn — he woke almost every morning fully rested and slept in late on Saturdays — and because his life before and after baby was kept as unchanged as possible, he had no idea of the enormity of my burden. He hadn’t even tried to lift it to feel how heavy it was, because I had given him no reason or encouragement to do so. Consequently, we both began seeing me as weak, and as a failure for not being able to function as if my life had not been profoundly and wonderfully altered. After all, hadn’t I once foolishly pronounced, in my ignorance, that I would never allow a cute little baby to throw our lives into chaotic disarray?
I was not so foolish with subsequent babies, but I did not apply the lessons learned to the rest of my life. For years, I struggled alone and unaided under the load of sexual trauma. It was an invisible burden to everyone else. Finally two major family crises got piled on top of all that, and I could no longer carry my burdens. I almost collapsed under the weight.
Those who had never seen my burdens, never felt them, never tried to help carry them, those who had no idea of the extent of my wounds — because I operated under the principle of “show no weakness” — those who didn’t know better saw only my sudden inability to no longer function as if all were well in my life, as if I weren’t being crushed under a load far too heavy for anyone to carry. No wonder I was perceived as weak and fragile.
My therapist treats children as well as adults, and sometimes he will pass on the wisdom they share with him. One described therapy as the process of crawling out from under a giant backpack that was filled with rocks, opening the backpack in order to sort out what shouldn’t be in there, and remaking the backpack so that it was human-sized and appropriate to carry. Needing help carrying an oversized backpack full of rocks doesn’t make you weak — it just means you’re human, and the load is too heavy.
I was thankful to find my “tribe”, which consists of some of the strongest people I know. We have gone from wounded birds afraid to show weakness to eagles locking our wings and flying above the storms. That doesn’t mean we are a superhuman bunch (although we joke that one of us is) and it doesn’t mean that we haven’t stumbled, floundered, fallen, or been crushed. The thing is — we know the weight of those invisible burdens. We know the pain of the struggle. When someone is collapsing under the enormity of it all, we don’t say, “Look how weak she is. What’s wrong with her?” We say, “That burden is too heavy. Let me help. Here, lean on me.”
The same God who designed us to live and heal in community, to bear one another’s burdens, also sent His Son to lift those burdens we were never meant to carry.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)