Losing Face

26 10 2009

facesIt was the springtime of hope, when the curtain of despair was promising to lift.  A near decade of depression was on its last leg.  I found myself sitting on a short wall, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun on my back as the sparrows chattered wildly in a nearby hedge.  It was a great day to be alive, and I thought nothing could spoil it.  As fate would have it, along came one of those people I call by the title of Hostage Taker (but never to the person’s face), for whom conversation is a performance art, requiring nothing more than herself and an inanimate telephone pole.  Such people never seem to notice or care whether the person with whom they are speaking is actually engaging in the conversation.  If one wanted to be left alone, such people would continue prattling heedlessly.

On this day, my self-appointed hostage taker was otherwise known as Anna.  She was a rather energetic individual with an overzealous enthusiasm for all things positive.  On her first day at college, she was probably the most noticeable person in the chapel service, bouncing and singing with more force than anyone else.  Being the cynical, negative person that I was, I looked upon this as odd, at best, or downright silly, at worst.  See, for the previous nine years, I had developed this theory that, deep down inside, all people in the world were really just miserable unhappy wretches.  I wondered if more people might be apt to kill themselves if the process weren’t so horrible.  Now, of course there were people who seemed happy.  To the people who were only occasionally happy, I attributed a temporary case of serendipity.  The others, I figured, were complete frauds.  Deep inside the heart of every person I imagined a gnawing hungry angst.  It didn’t help that a friend had scolded me for being unhappy and insisted that I act happy to make other people feel good.  She was the daughter of a rather important political figure, so I chalk it up to her warped upbringing.

This Anna, though, was a different case, altogether.  Her perspective was that God wanted all Christians to be ecstatically happy, mostly to the point of apoplexy.  Non-Christians were supposed to look at us and see our joy and want to be just like us.  I didn’t say a word for the entire conversation, hoping that she would leave me to my sun and sparrows.  Okay, so I have a stoic disposition, even when I’m happy.  I’ve been in a state of bliss, only to have someone ask me what’s wrong.  So, I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve.  Even so, I felt rather insulted that she would imply that I looked downcast, or that I should fake it and act happy.

“…so even when I’m sad, I put on a happy face, because God rewards a cheerful person, and pretty soon he’ll make me happy inside, too.”

And in the meantime, you tell a lie to the world with your face.  See, there are more ways to lie than with direct verbal contradictions of truth.  In fact, there are more ways to lie than with words.  I don’t know anyplace in the Bible that says that God will make us insanely happy all of the time, or that we should trick the world into thinking we’re happy.  The Bible does, however, tell us not to lie.  Jesus didn’t dance for joy on the mount of olives as he waited for his execution.  He wept and wailed, and he probably gave himself a degree of  heart failure while he was at it.  He was a man of sorrows, visiting a fallen world.

The world does not need to see another smiling face.  It needs to see the truth.  The truth is that, while I haven’t met an unbeliever who could adequately differentiate between joy and happiness, I haven’t met a Christian who couldn’t.  I have been sad, yet felt the abiding joy of the Lord.  There’s a distinct difference.  The joy goes deeper.  Yet, we are all occasionally sad.  To be otherwise is to be insensitive and uncaring.  It is to be a pretentious fraud.  Once people get wind of the idea that the smile is just a façade, then there is nothing stopping the imaginations of the despairing from believing, as I did, that all people are really miserable, if the truth be told.  Prove yourself a liar, and everything you do will be suspect.

But, why lie?  Do we have this notion that God instills an overflowing happiness in everyone who puts their faith in Christ?  If this is true, then we don’t need to lie with our faces.  If this is false, then we need to change our doctrine.  But the individual doubts himself.  An individual woman looks at her mundane state of existence and thinks that she has fallen short, having failed to achieve that bliss.  The smile is the bandage that covers the gaping wound of which she is so ashamed.  In that respect, Anna was trying to help me, like telling a man that the zipper on his fly is down, or that he has toothpaste stuck in the corner of his mouth.  My unenthusiastic demeanor was showing.  I was letting slip my failure as a Christian.

Now, the most ironic thing happened just a few days later.  Anna awoke one morning with a palsy in her face.  The entire left side of her face went limp as a wet rag.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I would be in a state of uncontrolled panic if that ever happened to me.  Without a doubt, this would be a test of her resolve to put on a happy face, even in times of trouble.  She declared with half a smile that God would heal her.  She was determined to stay happy and trust God.  While half of her face lied, the other half, the one that no longer worked, told the truth.  One side had a foolish grin, and the other side was the picture of despair.  We were sitting at a table in the college cafeteria, and everyone at that table froze in the middle of eating to stare at the half-happy half-sad face.  It was very disturbing.  Anna let loose with a sigh, like the truth was bottled up inside her and the pressure had to be released.

In the days that followed, she slowly lost her resolve.  As time marched on, the two sides of her face began to match each other.  She had lost face.  I can only imagine what it must have been like, waking up each morning to that discouraging image in the mirror.  She couldn’t even fool herself with a forced smile.  The one trying event had come that she could not smile her way through.  Slowly, she was learning to express an honest emotion.  God had not decreed that all Christians be happy all of the time, but he had stated that we must be honest.

I was told at an early age that God uses adversity to teach us his ways.  Consequently, I tried, or thought I tried, to learn and understand these things so as to avoid the impending trouble.  I know that he has used hardship to teach me, and I can see clearly how he used it to teach Anna.  We science students, especially those of the pre-med disposition, looked upon her as a case study.  Though I was not around to see her recover from her ailment, I do believe that she probably recovered fully in a month or two.

From then on, I decided that I would never, unless posing for a picture, and maybe not even then, fake a smile.  I want the world to see me happy, but, more importantly, I want to be honest, and I want to actually be happy.  Incidentally, I consider my life to be a very pleasant experience, over-all.

At the moment, I am happy.  I could use an apple fritter and a cup of coffee, but otherwise, I’m doing just fine.