Last week I shared that my birthday has sometimes been a difficult day. The truth is that the whole month of September has traditionally been a rough month for me. In years past, I’ve gone through tough break ups, disappointing job experiences and a car accident, all in the month of September. This year with a new home and a family trip early in the month, I thought I had avoided the September pandemonium, but I was wrong. It has been another hard month, and as the leaves are actually falling (even though it is really hot here), so have many tears.
I pride myself on not being a crier, so for me crying is rare. Recently, walking out of a work meeting, one of my colleagues asked the question, “Are you okay?” It seems even though I had done my best to cover up how I was feeling, something about my usual bubbly self wasn’t present and caused him to be concerned. I am not proud of what happened next, but I am thankful. I turned into a giant ball of tears. I am not thankful of how embarrassing the tears were or how unprofessional I felt, but what I am thankful for is the conversation that followed. He had no answers for the pain I was going through, he just knew it was a hard season, he knew God was present and he wanted me to know I was loved and cared about. That was it – no answers needed, just an awareness that I am not alone. Did it solve anything? No, but it made me sense the presence of God, and it made the day a little easier.
Why do I share this story? Do I share because I am hoping for some fall pity along with a pumpkin spice latte? No, it is because I have been thinking about that question and how it literally has the power to save lives – “Are you okay?” How many of us have been afraid of asking someone that question? We are usually afraid to ask it because we are afraid that we won’t have the right words or the solutions to whatever is plaguing them. But we aren’t meant to have the right words – just to provide the right presence.
I spent part of this weekend in a hospital room with a family whose beloved mother had just suffered a stroke. As I walked into the hospital, I thought about when I was a younger pastor and these visits would scare me… what if I didn’t do or say the right thing? What has changed is that I have learned there are no right words or magic thing I can do to comfort people – all I can ask is “Are you okay?” All I can do is mean it when I ask, and then sit with them and let them answer the question. It is some of the holiest space I have ever been a part of. Listening to people answer that simple question has felt like holy ground.
Australia has figured out the power of that simple question, and there is a countrywide official day known as “R U Ok?” day. It was begun by a family after the father committed suicide. The father had never shared his pain with others. The son wanted to do something to honor his remarkable dad, so he began the campaign to have a day where people would intentionally ask the question “Are you okay?” It seems simple but it is profound. The campaign has done tremendously well and has helped thousands of people begin to feel connected and supported. Part of this year’s campaign was to give people a chance to thank those who had supported them by asking the question and sharing their story. The stories are inspiring and overwhelming. Amazing healing has been possible just because someone was willing to risk asking how someone else was doing.
Five years ago I sat in a pew at a very large funeral. The man who had passed away was the son of two of my parishioners. He was a beloved fireman and community member. People stood up and shared stories of just how inspiring of a human he was. As you heard the stories, you began to have a picture of this amazing man come to mind; clearly the world had lost a good one. His widow took the stage last and began to speak with a shaky voice. She first apologized for how uncomfortable she was speaking in public. She then shared how wonderful her husband was, and then said, “But he made a mistake, and that is why we are here today.” He didn’t share how he was really doing. He suffered from depression and was ashamed to admit it to anyone. His family knew and would help him cover it up. On this one particular day he had just had a hard day, and by all accounts he really wasn’t suicidal, but for this day things just got to heavy and too hard for him. She challenged anyone who had such tough stuff going on to share it, and she challenged family members to seek help as they supported their family members. She also added that we have to start asking people if they are okay.
This year R U OK day fell on my birthday – I like that, and I would challenge all of us as people and churches to be the ones asking that question, and honestly answering it when it is asked of us!