It’s Just a Little PTSD…So Why Aren’t You Smiling?

Fake smile graphic

I’m writing this today because of a response I once got from a pastor to a dire situation in my life. I went to him desperate, needing tangible help, asking for intervention, assistance, something. I was in the middle of trauma, relatively uncomposed, unnerved, showing the effects of being in the most difficult situation of my life. The pastor repeated frequently (as though it should be comforting), “I pray you find your peace and joy,” and left his “support” at that, for the most part, despite many interactions about the particular trauma I was facing. Now, I think pastors have one of the hardest and most draining jobs in the world, and I think we should honor them if at all appropriate at every possible turn. But everything in me knew, that response was wrong…lacking, at best.

Have you ever been in the struggle of a lifetime during which many a person has something “helpful” to say about how you should handle it? (It’s often, ironically, the same people who crumble over a hangnail.) Or they seem to imply, if not say directly, that you need to appear a certain way on the outside as proof that you’re handling your challenge right (meaning, how they’d handle it, though they have never handled it)? I have been there. I know you have, too.

I’ve noticed that all too often certain emotions are labeled “negative” and others “positive” and then conclusions drawn about success or failure based on which of those are exhibited during a struggle. I have no tolerance left for this shallow analysis. I salute farewell in those moments now and scooch closer to my battle buddies–ones who don’t make accusations when you express transient (very normal) emotions and responses to extreme duress.

And duress and trauma abound in this life. There is a war on, and I believe everybody is in the middle of it, whether they’re on the front lines or not, whether they’re actively deployed or waiting their turn in the theater wings. I recently heard it said well: “I believe in the devil. Anyone who doesn’t has a big surprise coming someday.” I’ve met two kinds of people—those who know they’re at war, and those who don’t.

We unequivocally need to know who to lock arms with in the fight if we’re going to win (survive life’s worst and recover to thrive). My choice is to soldier up with those who acknowledge the reality of war and have some understanding of its ugliness, because they won’t call you ugly while you’re fighting. I also choose to forevermore now avoid double agents who say they’re on your side but then discharge friendly fire at close range to try to keep you in line instead of firing at the real enemy. Taking those bullets used to make my head spin but now just my heels do; I take off running fast for safety from such attempts to “help.”

There are others who have fought life’s wars on the front lines who know how to do it with you. I find them. And it’s not hard, because they stick out like sore thumbs. They’ll be saying things like:

  • I see the strength underneath your tears.
  • I see the courage in you taking action that you didn’t want to take when you could’ve become paralyzed.
  • I see that sometimes the answer is this and sometimes it’s that other thing, so I won’t generalize and legalize your problem.
  • I won’t claim to know what I’d do or how I’d be in this situation, because I’ve never had to do it. What do you need?
  • I see that you fight on readily even though it’s temporarily breaking your heart and happiness, because there’s justice and peace in the outcome. I see you’re choosing delayed gratification through the anguish.
  • I know the momentary sobs and panic don’t mean you’re failing but are the obstacles that could make you stand down and surrender, but you don’t.
  • I’m proud of you for grieving; it’s the only way through and out.
  • I know that joy goes deeper than a smile, and peace runs deeper than moments of still meditation.

In other words, they’ll say things out of emotional depth and breadth, out of the insight that comes with experience and humility.

Strangely, I’ve found it’s the same folks who’d say you’re not joyful and peaceful enough in the middle of your catastrophe who’d in the next breath say they can’t believe you’re really going through something all that bad because you don’t look traumatized enough. Figure that. If you manage by some miracle to keep your smile and some fairly consistent pep in your step, you’re still not eligible for the handling-it-well trophy from these folks; they simply discredit the difficulty of your challenge. What? Unfortunately, they’re not really able or interested in loving and supporting you but fixing or dismissing you enough to keep themselves comfortable. They want to give war instructions from a safe distance or make believe that war isn’t really that bad. It’s more convenient to the status quo.

To the contrary, your better war buddies are the ones that just dive into your foxhole and ask questions later, because they know and trust your character. They simply start tending your wounds and shooting at your enemy (not you) when you can’t. Your band of brothers isn’t sitting back grading you, waiting to help until you’re perfectly composed under fire, holding up a score card like a figure skating judge (3.6 out of 10 for lack of peace and joy). Whether you’re holding it together perfectly or losing it altogether, if the war’s on, they see and they jump. They strategize with you about what is needed to conquer instead of presume they know better than you what to do simply because you appear frightened. Only allow that at your right and left hands during the fiercest battles.

I suppose the people suggesting that we should look superficially alright while taking enemy fire may have a decent motive but a very misguided tactic. Maybe they mean to give good advice about what it looks like to conquer, how not to let yourself be controlled by circumstances or let hard things steal from you. But in my opinion, it’s a little crazy to think you won’t see war on someone’s face. And they’re skipping a vital step—the crucial need to feel in order to heal. Nobody fights a war without feeling something. We can’t skip right to the end of the process, because pain legitimately hurts, and wounds need to heal. And sometimes you need help getting out of the line of fire first, not help fixing your countenance while you’re taking shots.

So maybe when we see someone upended from trauma we can try to remember some things–my humble suggestions from the front lines of battle:

  • Maybe we can remember that the body has an involuntary nervous system during stress, and the resulting expression of trauma symptoms is normal under duress (and it’s not smiles, yawns, relaxation and giggles, for clarity).
  • Maybe we understand that there are different make-ups and personality types–different innate levels of emotional and physical sensitivity.
  • Maybe we remember that feelings are just feelings; they come and go often without warning or choice, especially and justifiably so under hardship. But character is what defines a real warrior—right choices made and brave actions taken in the face of those extremely pressing feelings. We remember to look for the latter if we’re going to judge performance at all.
  • Maybe we understand that a soldier on the front lines of war or a victimized person isn’t going to act or appear the same as one miles away from the action, secure at home.
  • Maybe we remember Ecclesiastes 3, Lamentations, Job, the Psalms; there’s a time for everything, and God sanctioned and gave us great examples of a good, healthy lament.
  • Maybe we understand that sometimes the strongest people stay in battle voluntarily, laying down their lives and surrendering comfortable feelings for noble reasons; they stand at attention in an attempt to create peace and joy for others or because there’s a deeper peace and truer joy in battle sacrifice then in Friday night pizza and a movie. There are causes worth self sacrifice.

If we don’t remember all this, then we have to say that Jesus really screwed up at Gethsemane. Furthermore, we’d have to believe his disciples got it pitch perfect right in that garden. They were chill enough to sleep during the prelude to the cross. They were the “peaceful” ones, by appearances. Maybe they joked around—happily lazing—until they drifted off, because they didn’t realize they were in a war. Anyone who believes that surface appearance represents (spiritual) success or failure would naturally applaud them; they held their peace and maintained their joy, yep. But that Jesus, oh he really dropped the ball. He was in visceral turmoil, having a very hard conversation and mentally working his problem relentlessly with his Daddy. He wouldn’t let it go and hold his peace (or tongue or questions or emotions), tormented to the point of drops of blood-sweat.

The above paragraph must be true, unless of course the peace and joy God directed us to have mean something deeper than the absence of adrenaline along with the silence and upward curvature of the corners of ones lips.

But if we think Jesus didn’t mess up big time but instead saved the day, then we have to see it. His emotions had nothing at all to do with him handling his situation well–perfectly. He looked like a mess, and yet He was totally right and triumphant. He didn’t say, Hey, good job guys for not getting upset or stressed out and staying all emotionally peachy. No. He said (basically, I take much paraphrasing liberty), You couldn’t get serious and hunker down with me? Come on! We’re at war. I’m heading off to the front lines, to the grave, to experience all the sin of everyone for all time for three days. Wake up and work this problem with me! I’m sweating bullets over here, and you couldn’t join me in battle even for one hour? He was preparing for a HUGE battle, and he knew it wasn’t time to invite his friends for a nice spot of tea and crumpets with happy chats in the name of handling it “well.” He knew that true peace and joy were in the delayed gratification of surrendering to a misery that hadn’t even really yet begun and walking straight to battle, because of love. He chose the peace and joy of obedience through unrelenting, temporary torment.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of peace and joy. I even think God promised them. I just can’t define them as superficially as I’ve seen done. A breezy attitude isn’t peace, and a smile isn’t joy. It can be, but we best hunt deeper, farther and smarter for their meaning before we start accusing others of failure to have them. And if all we can do when we are in a position to help someone in trauma or oppression is wish peace and joy on them, we might want to revisit how Jesus ministered to the suffering or needy and our own qualifications, capability and claim to serve as a people minister.

An obvious example of how judging by demeanor fails terribly comes to mind. Can someone appear laid-back peaceful and jovial joyful all the time while using food, nicotine, alcohol, workaholism, shopaholism or popularity to sustain it? Yep. But is that peace? Is that joy? Is that authentic living? Or are the depths of emotion and hard realities of life simply being avoided with band-aids on a bleeding heart? Unhealthy coping mechanisms call into question someone’s claim of peace and joy to me faster than you can say “twinkie.”

The moral of my story is that there are unsafe folks to confide in when the battle is on, as I’m sure you well know—some characters without intestinal fortitude to handle more than a slightly rocky boat. They are those who would say yelling “Fire!” during a (real) fire is a disturbance of the peace, even though there are lives at stake and adrenaline-inspired running to do. They are those who’d forego the trouble of carrying a wounded soldier off the battlefield because they have “proper boundaries” (literally the explanation I received from said pastor) for the sake of their own joy, or worse, not even go to the battlefield in the first place because it’s not a peaceful place.

But that’s not real life. That’s not love. And that’s not noble. No, those aren’t the folks I want surrounding me in my darkest hours. When the boat capsizes in the deep, I want rock-solid fortitude, emotional depth and through-and-through courage in my companions. I want someone, even in the PTSD-ridden after hours when the sound of a harmless Nerf gun makes me hit the deck for fear of life and limb, who doesn’t ask the (stupid) question, “Why aren’t you smiling?” but instead asks, “What can I do to help you smile again, dear wounded one?” I want someone who understands we’re at war—and not with each other, but with much, much more powerful forces.

And I want to be that person as well for those at the front lines fighting the good fight. Because it’s OK to not look OK when crazy bad things happen. It doesn’t mean you’re not OK in the places that matter most. All feelings have different jobs but an important role, and often they point to something that needs to change. It’s healthy to feel emotions in trauma; damage is done to the soul and spirit if we don’t, because healing then halts. Emotional authenticity in the midst of rough feelings is a hallmark of maturity, not wrongness. The feeling and expression of difficult things is strength, not weakness, especially when it produces growth. And I argue the person who expresses more progresses more than the person who represses more.

So in the future, if I give voice to casualties I’ve suffered from war in a shell-shocked, shaky way and am given the suggestion to just find my peace and joy in that moment, my likely response will be…Peace out.

With Hope and Heart in Hand,

Carolyn

Presented by Writers Block Prose, LLC

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