There I was in my cap and gown sitting in between two of my closest friends as the trumpets began to play and the commencement ceremony began. There was an energy in the room that was indescribable. There was excitement, joy, a little bit of nervousness and fear, but overall, the energy was positive. There were proud parents beaming in the row behind us. Professors and mentors standing tall as their mentees received their diplomas and headed off to conquer the next phase of their life. It was a moment that everyone participating in wanted to capture forever. Photographs and videos would try and do it justice, but there was something about being in that moment that we would never get back again. As the commencement speaker stood up to speak, he began with the words, “Hello family and friends of these 2014 graduates. I am sure you are all incredibly proud of the ones who are sitting before me today in their caps and gowns. I want to take this moment to let you all know that I am happy to be here. I am happy that I get to partake in this moment with all of you. I’m happy. Aren’t you?” The room roared with cheers and claps and even a few cowbells and air horns. Everyone there was happy. And for that moment, time stood still.
Lots of things begin with those words, right? “I’m happy to be here with you.” Those words remind those who we are present with that there is a sense of happiness that surrounds the concept of community. There’s a happiness that comes from speaking and sharing our stories, drinking coffee with one another and doing church together. The words, happy to be here are spoken more often than we even realize. However, we associate them the most with formal speeches, such as the commencement speech that was given at my Alma Mater.
However, I want us to move to thinking about the words, Happy to be here, in a way that you have probably never considered before. Instead of a commencement ceremony, wedding or presidential address, what if we apply the words, happy to be here, to life? It’s a little tricky isn’t it? How do we wake up each day and greet the world with the words, I’m happy to be here? For some of us, it seems simple. For others of us, it’s a difficult journey to just wake up each day. How do we as the body of Christ create a space that is healthy, safe, and welcoming to all people? People who are happy to be a part of life and people who struggle to be happy with life, how to we make room for everyone?
I don’t know how many of you know this, but the month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness. This past May awareness swept across the Internet and people finally began having the conversations that have been considered taboo for so long. Celebrities posted selfies holding up 4 fingers as an act of reminding people that 1 in 4 deal with some sort of mental health issue. 13 Reasons Why took Netflix by storm and caused conversations to begin and companies like Beauty Brands, Loki, TWLOHA and so many others have been dedicated to giving back to the mental health community for quite some time and in the Month of May, their support was magnified. This year, there was a buzz within the world and I think it’s time that we as the church have that conversation. So ask you, the church, how do we take the words, happy to be here and connect them to our lives and our role within the mental health community?
I have had the honor of mentoring several high school students over the past several years. I have seen them flourish in their gifts and suffer greatly when moments of deep grief and pain strikes their souls. One girl has been on both sides of that spectrum. I watched her take the lead in her school musical and I also visited her in the hospital just days after she tried to take her own life. There were moments where she was happy to be here. She was incredibly gifted and came to life as she performed on stage. Along with those happy moments, she had deep, deep sorrow in her soul as she dealt with the passing of her dear friend and the crippling effects that cancer had on her toddler aged cousin.
Can you imagine with me for a moment what the sweet 14 year old must have been feeling? The darkness that surrounded her was too much for her soul to handle. Her body tired and weak, her mind racing faster than it ever has before, and her soul so stricken with pain that she needed to feel something. Anything. The loneliness, darkness, negative self-talk, and trauma. They all came together to create a shell out of this 14-year-old girl and they pressed against who she was until she finally broke. The pain was too much. The days and nights spent crying out for help had finally been heard. She was safe now. People were there and ready to listen.
She has been both. Happy to be here, and not so happy to be here. But when I went to visit her in that hospital room, she looked up at me and said that she was happy to be alive. Those moments church, are the moments I am happy to be here for.
Now, just like that high schooler, I know that there are several of you who are reading this that are anything but happy to be here. Anything but happy to show up to life daily. Anything but happy about the current situations that are existing in your lives. It’s hard and it’s okay to admit that in the midst of life and all of its happenings that you are not happy to be here.
1 in 4. That’s the statistic. Look around the coffee shop, the church, the gym, and your favorite restaurant. You see men and women, young and old, short and tall, loud and shy and the list goes on and on. There isn’t a typical person that this feeling belongs to. It’s your sisters, cousins, husbands, wives, children, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and lawyers. It’s not specific. It affects all of us in some way.
This reality that so many people are living is one that is hard to understand. If you have never been in that space before, you may find it hard to understand what someone with depression, anxiety or PTSD is feeling. Imagine being in a crowded shopping mall. There’s music playing in every store, there are people talking, store registers beeping, babies crying, carnival machines making noise and then there’s you. Those noises that don’t seem to bother anyone are ringing so loudly in your ears that you are paralyzed by the reality that you are living in. The music? It’s the voices of people who have spoken terrible words over you your entire life. The beeping of the registers? The trauma that you are faced with daily. The baby crying? That’s your friends and family crying at your dropped plans, lack of motivation and sleep patterns. It’s swirling around you and everyone seems to be opposite of you. It’s dark, it’s loud and it’s incredibly lonely. However, there is a role for the church to play.
People dealing with mental illness need someone who will show up. People who press firmly against your wounds and remind you that you are worthy of love and care. People who sit with you, hold your hand, keep you safe and offer you life. People who are daily inviting you in to community. Daily asking what you need. Daily extending life vests when the waters are drowning you. Those people are the ones who save lives. Those people are the ones who show up, love hard and remain constant. My person has done those things. My person exists in the church. There’s 1 in 4 looking for a person, will you be there? Will you sit in the darkness with them and offer the little flicker of light they have been hoping for?
If you see yourself in that loud shopping mall or whatever it may be for you, I see you and I hear you. I see your strength and your unbelievable willingness to try each and everyday. I hear you as you talk about the pain and trauma that causes you to respond differently in the world. It’s okay, you’re teaching the rest of us and that’s incredibly important. I’m glad you’re here. I hope one day you are happy to be here too.
This road hasn’t always been easy and I’ve struggled more days than I would like to admit, but there have been moments where I have found deep happiness in the world. The way the sun raises over the lake in Chicago, the way babies grip onto our fingers and the deep green color that spills on our fields as summer crops begin to grow. These moments where I am reminded that happiness exists in the mundane are the moments that I cling to when life isn’t so easy and I am not always happy to be here.
For now, I’ll rest in those mundane moments that remind me how important it is to show up, love and exist in the world. My hope is that you, the church will exist in those mundane moments and offer support and love to those who are dealing with mental illness.