My friend Brooke recently published a book and I had the chance to review it for her. I’ll admit that I’m not usually a fan of fiction but I actually enjoyed it. The book is called the Wizard of god and it follows a girl named Grace on a journey through a spiritual landscape that is both fantastical and eerily familiar. Like the classic story, our heroine amasses a band of misfits and heads for a far off place to find a person with all the answers. Along the journey that encounter stereotypes of the church as it exists today, with all extremes being represented.
As someone who has been wounded by churches and Christians in the past, there were several chapters that really resonated with me but there is one particular scene that I’ve thought about several times over the past several days. When Grace finally reaches her destination, she and her companions are given plastic training smiles which they instructed to wear until their facial muscles adjust to smiling all the time. The group finds themselves through this giant, fancy compound filled with beautiful people and their fake smiles with all of their pain hidden behind masks.
I thought about that scene as I walked into the elementary school for Muffins with Moms last week with a plastic smile on my face and a bitemark from one of my children on my hand. I greeted other parents in the hallway like I hadn’t spent the last hour trying stop a meltdown. I sat at that cafeteria table and tried to overcome the horrible morning to connect with my kids before they ran off to class and thought about how exhausting it was but I kept my smile on anyway.
I continued to think about that scene off and on throughout the week because we’ve had some really hard days at our house lately. It is always complicated for my kids when they see their biological family but we thought they could handle an extended visit with one of their siblings because of some extenuating circumstances. Instead we spent about two weeks in absolute crisis mode as attachment issues reared their ugly heads. I kept my smile on though, at least in public.
I thought about that scene after church last Sunday too. The girl child screamed for most of the morning and the entire drive to church. My nerves were frayed and I was tired. When I walked the boys to class, another mama asked me a question about an issue that we have faced with one of our kids. Her child is working to overcome similar challenges and she wanted advice. I took a deep breath and considered putting my smile back on to tell her how it’s done but I left chose to leave it in my pocket instead. I told her I was empty and that as much as I wanted to help her, we would have to talk strategies another day. To my surprise, instead of a glaring, judgmental sanctimommy, I found another mother who struggles some days too.
I realized in that moment that the best thing about taking off your mask is that others lay theirs down too. I have to tell you that felt amazing. I needed that moment in the church hallway of connecting with another mother who can see me struggle without thinking I’m Medusa.
In light of my newest revelations, I thought about that scene and some of the moments when I took the smile off to let my face and soul relax. I started a new job that I am really excited about. The night before, I sent my person a message that basically said “this might be imposter syndrome but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be completely incompetent and fall on my face tomorrow.” Since she’s an amazing human, my friend encouraged me and I felt empowered when I arrived at the office the next morning. Taking my mask off that night allowed me to connect with someone so I didn’t need to fake it; I could smile for real.
I don’t think it’s realistic to pretend like I could go through life and never fake another smile. There are situations where we simply have to grin and bear it. I see benefits to laying our masks down whenever it is safe to though. I think when we take our fake smiles off, it lets our real ones come out. They may not be as flashy and gaudy. They may even be weak but they are authentic. They may coexist with tears but they exist in the flesh instead of plastic when we are allowed to share our truth with the people around us.