The First Step into The Middle

It was almost time to go home. 

My feet hurt. 
My back was ready for me to call it a day.
Making change was becoming stupidly challenging.

Come on, Amanda—just another twenty minutes.

I glanced up at the last-minute-shopper line forming and forced a sleepy smile.

“Hello, how are you tonight?” I asked her before I started scanning her items.

“Ugh,” she sighed. “I don’t know how to answer that anymore.”

“Oh no,” I looked up for a second into the sad and angry eyes of a middle-aged woman. “Sounds like a rough day?” I asked as I continued scanning and bagging.

“No, it’s just that it doesn’t feel right to dump my stuff on everyone who asks me how I am, and yet I can’t keep lying to everyone. I’m NOT fine. I’ve just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer!” Her volume was low but her pitch increased with every word, breaking with emotion as she said the last word.

I stopped what I was doing and looked up at her for a moment, noticing the growing line behind her for only a second.

“I’m really sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be facing that and still do the normal everyday stuff.” 

She looked down and I continued, “I went through this phase in college where I realized that everyone was operating in a matrix of obligatory ‘how are you’ questions and robotic ‘I’m fine’ answers, but I was in some real emotional pain. So, I started telling the truth when they asked, and—well, it stunned people at first, and some did stop asking me, but there were a few that leaned in and became the allies I needed during that time.” 

When I looked up again, I saw her searching helplessly for words and smiled, “I, for one, am glad you didn’t give me a plain old ‘I’m fine,’ and I wish you the absolute best as you fight for your life.”

“Thank you,” she whispered before wiping a tear and walking away.

This scene took place the night before I put out my blog, “Are you in The Middle?” and received several private messages and emails from people who are either just being invited to it, or who have been trying to avoid it at all costs. (Who can blame them? Not me!)

I think one of the reasons we resist The Middle is because we either 
don’t know how to stop the momentum of niceties because it’s all just so automatic, or we are terrified of what will happen when we do.
After all, most of us are key characters in other people’s worlds too, right?

We are partners. 

Will we scare them, or let them down, if we stop pretending we’re okay?

We are parents. 

Don’t we need to keep it all together so they feel safe?

We are friends. 

Will they ever see us the same way if we drop the façade?

We are leaders/guides. 

Won’t those who look to us for support and answers see us as frauds if we show them the messy stuff, too?

If we break from the script, it might send everyone spinning.

And if we’re honest, it’s scary enough to be having all of these feelings ourselves. Can we handle theirs too? What if they run away? What if they fall apart? What if they ask questions we don’t have answers to?

But if she can do it, so can we
And I think she gave meusa very powerful script to try:

“I don’t know how to answer that anymore. It doesn’t feel right to dump my stuff, and yet I can’t keep lying. I’m NOT fine.”

Yes, they will likely be stunned silent for a moment—at least.
Yes, some of them might stop asking you how you are. 
Some of them might even walk away.
But some of them might lean in.
Some might even acknowledge you for breaking from the script and speaking truth. 
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find one or two that will say, 
“You know, I’ve been there before. 
The courage to speak the truth is the same courage that will see you through this. 
If you need an ear, or an ally, you have my number.”
And heyif no one leans inyou have my number.
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