As a child I took part in a lot of theatre and I absolutely loved it. Surprisingly for someone who was generally pretty quiet, I was always a bit of a performer, as long as it involved music.
One thing that was drilled into us time and time again was the importance of staying in character. When you went out on stage you were not yourself; you were acting a role. No matter how you were feeling or what had happened that day, you had to leave that aside and act the part.
Since I was mainly involved in pantomime, that generally involved smiling and, over the years, there were times when I felt ill or tired or worried, but for those moments onstage I had to put that aside and smile and do what I had to do.
In the first show I took part in when I was five years old, I got hurt on stage on the opening night when something was accidentally slammed down on my toe. It is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I remember the intense pain, but also the knowledge that I couldn’t react. I had to keep smiling and stay in character.
Fortunately it was right at the end of the song as I was about to go offstage, but I held the pose and held the smile as the audience applauded and, only after I had gone offstage and run along the corridor, into the dressing room, did I begin to cry.
People praised me for my professionalism, but it set a dangerous precedent, because, before long, I began to live my life as if I was onstage. Incidents where I felt my pain was overlooked or misunderstood persuaded me that it was unimportant and no-one wanted to know, and so I began using the same technique. Keep smiling, ignore the pain, do what you’re meant to do, and it will all be okay in the end. On the rare occasions when I tried opening up, the reaction was not helpful, so eventually I just kept on acting. (I don’t say any of this to criticise my family. I was always loved and cared for as a child. There were just some complicated circumstances which weren’t understood by any of us at the time.)
The one saving grace (quite literally) was the fact that I came to know Jesus when I was nine years old and somehow, from the start, I knew it was different with Him. In Him, I found somewhere I could take the pain, where it was okay to be hurting.
With Him, I could be myself. With everyone else, I felt I had to act, which generally meant keeping smiling and doing what I was meant to do. I became pretty good at acting the right role for the right situation, and keeping my real self locked away.
It took a long time for God to chip away at the defensive wall I’d built around myself before I would even begin to let people in, but eventually I did. It was hard for me to admit weakness and accept help, but at last I was able to talk about the things I’d buried and find acceptance. It was a long, slow, gradual process, and it’s still on-going because, when I’m under pressure, that defensive wall can still come back up very easily and my true feelings can be hidden behind the smiles and assurances that “I’m fine.” I become that little girl again, smiling as people applaud, holding the pain deep inside.
I’ve written a lot here about surrender, my word for the year, and I think the next area God wants me to work on is continuing to surrender this self-protection: being quicker to acknowledge when I’m in pain and more ready to let others in.
Although I’ve come a long way on this journey already, there’s still something about it that scares me. I still have the fear of opening up to feel that people don’t care or don’t understand. It means vulnerability, but I know it’s for the best.
I think the key to it is trusting in God’s promises, realising that I can look to him for defense and protection, rather than looking to myself.
“The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety.” (Psalm 18:2)
So once again I am laying down the armour of people-pleasing and independence and smiling through the pain, and taking up the armour that God gives- the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Knowing the truth of who He is, and understanding how He sees us, frees us to be true to ourselves and gives us peace, regardless of people’s reactions. Accepting that righteousness comes from what Jesus has done, and knowing that we are secure in Him frees us from the burden of having to act a certain way to please other people. Holding to God’s promises and believing what He says allows Him to defend us and protect us.
It is not always an easy path to take, but I am convinced, and have experienced, that it is the path to greater freedom.
(And since I’ve had this song in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this post, I thought I’d share the joy!)