They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, that you shouldn’t look at a person and make an assumption about their life.
Well, sometimes, I do. And a few years ago, I was badly tripped up by my own nasty preconceptions.
I was at a big music conference in the US; great speakers, inspiring music and lots and lots of lights, smoke, gloss, shiny hair and put-together lives. The speakers were real pros, brilliant at what they do, full of wit and wisdom. I was having a ball.
One day, the final speaker was sitting at a table not far from me. I knew her from the glossy picture in the brochure and in person, she didn’t disappoint. She was gorgeous to look at, shoes to drool over, enviable worked-out figure and a bright,white, white smile.
It was dark in the room, but my brain took in the loveliness and decided she must have had the sort of life featured in films; you know, huge double-fronted white clad mansion, sunny, family BBQs and plenty of happy, well-adjusted, all-American children. A judgement? Certainly not a bad judgement, but still I’d judged her by the cover.
To start off, I wasn’t proved wrong. Her delivery was sweet, effortless, charming and I found my mind wandering toward which shampoo she used, in order to get her hair *that* shiny. I can never get my hair to do that.
But halfway through her talk, like she’d read my mind, she suddenly revealed the secret to the luscious locks. She doesn’t use shampoo at all.
The glossy, slick, gorgeous mane was a wig.
She has cancer. A real nasty, virulent rare form of cancer that has a very low survival rate, but because they found it at stage 1, she’d been told she might make it. She’s at the tail end of 8 months of chemo, 2 surgeries. And that is after she endured years of infertility ,business collapse, loss of her home and what she described as ‘God systematically removing every idol in my life’. On the big screen, she put up a picture of her at her worst, pale, skinny, bald and oh-so-sick.
I sat there, mind whirling. How wrong can you be? She’s been through SO much stuff and she admitted that even though the exterior looks well-presented, she’s still working through her ‘junk’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘what ifs’.
You could hear a pin drop in the room, as brains probably began to clunk that, ‘oh, erm…maybe she’s just like me…she’s had pain, she gets it…life isn’t always a bed of thornless roses’.
Or at least that’s what I was thinking,mingled in with some choice guilt for jumping to an unpleasant conclusion, before she’d barely uttered a word.
That day, I think God used her to cut right through the clutter of the noise and the lights and the fuzzy fame, to make it real and remind me (at least) that not everyone who looks like they have it together, actually does.
Everyone has a story. Hers was about pushing through cancer, infertility, home and business loss and all the heartache and absolute agony of that. My story might not be as ‘dramatic’ as cancer or losing a million-dollar business, but we can all tell a tale about grief or loss or sadness or things we wish we’d done, or not done. But, mostly, we get pretty good at covering up the real version. Is it just easier that way?
But when this speaker told her story, you could see heads nodding, a few damp eyes, because everyone could empathise with at least part of what she was saying. Later, in group sessions, you could overhear fragments of other stories being told around the room; heroin addiction, suicide. One woman just felt she’d never been quite ‘good enough’ and that had coloured every decision she’d ever made.
It was weird and freeing and liberating and moving all in one go. Sort of like the speaker had been real and normal and by doing so, had given everyone else permission to drop the pretense, take off ‘the wig’ and do the same.
I think we’ve all got a story, but we’re not all brave enough to share it.