I’ve never been good at small talk.
It’s not because I’m bad at it. I am, but that’s not the the main reason.
I’ve never been good at small talk for the same reason I’ve never been good at sitting and enjoying the artwork on a pizza box. It’s just a hard exterior that separates me from a satisfying meal. Maybe that’s a weird analogy, but I think about pizza a lot. I don’t know. I’m just going to stick with it.
We all live inside of our own pizza box, okay? Agreed? Good. On the outside of the box are comments on the weather, work anecdotes, and blanket statements that don’t mean much, like “I’m good.” The pizza needs a box, I get that. It needs to be protected from the elements. It needs to be kept warm. It needs the smell of the delivery truck to not be absorbed into the cheese. The box is needed, for a time. When it gets to my house, that need is erased by my need to eat pizza.
What if the box couldn’t be opened? You pay the driver, leave a nice tip, put the box on the table and find it sealed shut. Sure you could cut the box open, but that’s a little aggressive. You might damage the pizza, unevenly distribute toppings, which is sin.
And what is the pizza? The pizza is the good stuff. It’s all the things that aren’t the cardboard. It’s the dough that’s been tossed, spun, and kneaded on itself. The tomatoes that have been ripped apart and bruised. The pie that’s been covered in cheese and slightly charred in the oven. The toppings that have been through the slicer, the fridge, and then tossed indiscriminately on the round canvas. It goes through all that, and when you open the box, it’s a freaking beautiful mess. Even the worst pizza is a gift. Say amen.
And in people, the pizza is the suffering and the peace, the pain and the pleasure, the hardship and the happy, that has made them who they are on the inside, under the box.
That’s why I don’t particularly enjoy small talk. It’s not because I don’t want to talk about the weather, it’s because the weather (which here in Arizona is almost always the same) is the thing we talk about when we don’t want to talk about pizza…um, I mean you.
Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, we really need to open the box. Some people never open the box. Christians with mental health challenges especially. The church is worse off for it.
One of the reasons why I talk so openly about my mental health is because I went such a long time not talking about it. I just lived with it. I wrapped up the challenges I was facing in a box that displayed something like stability, something like strength, something like peace. What I showed on the outside was the safe exterior I created to make sure nobody knew what was happening on the inside.
Maybe you’re like me. Like I was. Maybe you, too, are living with the symptoms of a mental illness that you go to great lengths to not acknowledge, nor let be acknowledged, regardless of the context. The reasons for this can be varied.
Perhaps you’re worried that if you open the box someone will see that you’re actually feeling pretty low, maybe even dangerously low, and they’ll come to the conclusion that your low disposition is the result of spiritual deficiency.
Perhaps you’re worried that if you open it someone will see that despite your calm demeanor you’re actually sick with anxiety, and they’ll chalk it up to faithlessness.
Maybe if someone peers inside that box they’ll learn that you have intrusive thoughts about scary and violent things and they’ll think that you’re morally destitute.
The list could go on and on, and I’m not going to act like these aren’t realistic outcomes. I’ve been both, the one worried what others would think about my symptoms, and the one heaping burden on those that shared theirs with me.
So, I don’t recommend opening the box to all people, but I do recommend opening it a little to most people in the church (a test slice) and a lot to at least a few select people (7 of 8 slices, including the crust). I want to take a moment to explain what’s at stake when you don’t.
The Church Misses Out on its Burden-Bearing Calling
As people of faith we are not called to live lives of perpetual comfort. Being in communal relationship with one another is about more than mingling and trips to the coffee shop. The description in scripture of how the fruits of the spirit are made manifest in how we live for eachother border on a type of extremism. Not an unloving commitment to doctrine type of extremism, but a doctrinally-informed commitment to our neighbors type of extremism.
A verse that comes to mind is Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”
We hate being a burden. I tend to believe this has less to do with our fear that someone might have difficulty shouldering our burdens, though sometimes the case, and more to do with the fear that we’ll be perceived as less than self-sufficient. Consider what walking contradictions we are. A people who declare their utter insufficiency and dependance on Christ, and a people who will go to great lengths to keep their burdens hidden from the body of Christ.
I need my spiritual brothers and sisters to shoulder my burdens with me. I need their faith when I’m faithless, I need their hope when I am hopeless, I need their truth when I’m believing lies, I need their strength when I am weak. I need them to be salt and light to me, a manifestation of Christ’ love to me. I also need to give them the opportunity to bless me with all of these things.
I love these lyrics from the song Same Blood by King’s Kaleidoscope which encapsulate our need for one another so well.
I still need you father
Trusting in this great unknown
I still need you mother
Comfort me until we’re home
I still need you sister
Tell the truth and dare to dream
I still need you brother
Strengthen me and help me see
We all need each other
We all need each other now
That’s the vision of a beautiful church. When we keep our mental health challenges a secret, we rob the church from living this vision out.
You Put Yourself in a Position of Great Peril
We were not meant to experience life alone. Imbibed with a deep rooted need for others at every stage of life, we must be willing to step beyond the projection of identities rooted in perfection.
To all in the church: Whoa to us when we make it impossible for people to do so. When, as Jesus warned, we tie up heavy burdens and place them on people’s shoulders, but are unwilling to move them ourselves with so much as a finger.
We have to grow beyond our roles as spiritual how-to guides who take vulnerable confessions on the part of the brethren and respond with pithy imperatives about prayer and bible study. Wrapping up spiritual advice and having others accept responsibility upon receipt is not just unloving and easy, it’s dangerous. When someone tells you they’re hurting, how they’re hurting, and why they’re hurting, consider yourself enlisted. You’re now, like Samwise Gamgee with Frodo, along for the journey.
And who knows where that journey will take us. Waiting in the lobby of a psychiatrist office, maybe. Accompanying a friend to a support group, or chipping in to cover the cost of a prescription. I don’t mean to give you a to-do list if only because it would never be comprehensive enough. Fulfilling the law of Christ is to love as Christ loved, and to what lengths does Christ go for us in obedience to the Father? Hebrews says, “Even unto death.”
To all who suffer with a mental illness: We cannot allow the fact that some in the church will not be, or have not been, willing to come along with us on this journey to dissuade us from searching out those who are. They exist, believe me. Every full pew you’ve ever sat in has been shared with at least one, probably more, people who are living with a mental health diagnosis or living with someone with a diagnosis. That’s what the numbers show. To regretfully once again visit the pizza analogy, give enough people a slice and eventually you’ll meet someone who’s willing to share the whole pie. Seek these people. Be these people.
Because isolation is the enemy. The burden was not meant to be carried in secret, and secret burdens only grow. I would hate to know that your burden was never seen, that it weighed you down to the point of no return.
You miss out on delight
A delight to share your mental health challenges with others? If only!
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. The world tells us to seek joy in receiving respect and admiration for the things we are, the gospel tells us that we can delight in Christ being glorified in his sufficiency for all the things we aren’t.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians says “But he (Christ) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
I have often made an idol of the self-sufficient man. Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, as Shakespeare would say. I’ve tried to imitate them, tried to surround myself with them, tried to somehow outgrow the limitations of my own weakness in an effort to be them. I’ve learned two things:
- There are no self-sufficient men.
- I am far happier boasting in my weaknesses, than I am boasting in the imitation of strength.
My hope for you is not that you would adopt your mental illness as your identity, but that you would not be ashamed to live with it for the length of time it persists. Christ is made glorious not when we do great works for Him, but when we can openly declare the work He is doing through us in spite of any mental health challenges that encumber us in this life.