Last week, I met with a friend in a coffee shop. We sat together over steaming mugs, and I mentioned some words from her that had wounded. Her face registered surprise. She apologized, offered her genuine love for me. And then she said something that puzzled me.
“Honestly, Erin, you’re such a strong person, so tough, that I really didn’t think those words would wound you.”
This is not the first time I’ve been mis-seen.
A few years ago, I was quite sure of myself, knew who I was. I could predict my answers, had an opinion on just about everything, knew what was “good” and knew what was “bad”. I probably would have agreed that, yes, I am a strong person, tough through and through. But twelve weeks in a hospital has a way of changing a person.
No, not “changing” exactly. Who I am did not change in that hospital bed. It was revealed.
It was there that I first began to feel mis-seen. My heart was terrified, I was exhausted, I did not have enough strength to stand up to take a shower. And yet the people around me–doctors, nurses, visitors–continually reflected back to me that I was unbelievably strong and they were not worried about me in the least.
This being mis-seen has continued throughout these recent years of chronic illness. I ask for prayers, confess how I struggle, tell people I am not well, will they please pray for me? And it’s as if no one believes me. I bump into a member of the church’s prayer team at the grocery store, ask her how she’s doing. “Oh, we’ve been sick, had this, that and the other thing. But you’re doing well!” and it’s the way she says it, like a fact, not a question. Why is it so hard to be truly seen?
For a long time I struggle with this question, needing to know why I am continually seen incorrectly. For a long time, I think it is from some fault of my own, a desire to deceive. Surely I was hiding my true self, I was being false, I was trying to trick people. But with such a strong desire to be seen, and such frustration at not being seen, surely I was doing everything I knew to show my true self?
A patient friend listens as I talk through my struggle and frustration. And the more I process, the clearer the answer becomes. The trouble, the glorious conundrum, is that I am a walking contradiction.
I am weak, and I am also strong.
And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’
2 Corinthians 12:9
Because of Christ in me, in my weakness I am still so strong–much stronger than I even know. I don’t feel it, because it’s not that kind of strength. It’s not the strength that helps me get the laundry done or sow the spring peas and lettuce in the garden. It’s strength that gets me out of bed in the morning, puts clothes on my body, and prepares food to eat. Strength that simply carries me through a day, when my flesh is capable of nothing but lying on the couch. Other people see this–and they mistake it for me.
Over the weekend, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. My new healing diet requires a lot of intense cooking, so I have stew bubbling in the crockpot, soup simmering on the stove, and beef fat rendering on the stove top. While these things bubble and simmer I break open boxes of Duncan Heinz cake mix to make the Peanut’s birthday cake.
I adore baking, and I love making extravagant birthday cakes for my kiddos. They sit around the table and recall each and every birthday cake I’ve ever made for them. Then start coming up with fantastic ideas for the next birthday. This birthday, however, I am feeling particularly low. I don’t have it in me to bring out Martha’s basic vanilla sheet cake recipe. Nor do I have the energy for the lemon butter-cream frosting recipe. So, for the first time in about 15 years, I make a birthday cake from a box, and frost it from a can. And this box of cake mix, in my weary and foggy mind, becomes a symbol of my weakness.
As I’m mixing and frosting, the irony of my kitchen strikes me. I stop work and look, listen. This kitchen, with its soups and stews and beef tallow on one side, and the from-a-box cake on the other side, this kitchen is me. I am the stew–nourished, fulfilled, brimming with health and goodness. And I am the cake–not quite any of those things at all.
The God of Yes, And has gripped my heart again. He shows me that I am both, and that both are beautiful, necessary even. Each of them allows the other, an unlikely couple dancing a passionate tango together.
And since I am both, people can see me as either. Some will see me as the cake mix–measuring up a little short, needing a little sympathy and compassion. Some will see me as the stew–brimming with life and bubbling over with goodness. Most everyone will see me as whichever person they need me to be. Few–the very precious few–will see my true self. They will see me as both.