Last week, I went out to a nice holiday dinner with some homeschooling friends, which you can see in the photos on this post. While there, I bit into a portobello mushroom “fry” that was apparently just out of the frier. It was laden with way too much sizzling hot oil, and as I bit into it, I squawked, spitting it out. I am reminded of my father-in-law commenting once that whenever you take a swallow of coffee that is way too hot, nothing you do next will be right. So it was with me.
I wanted to minimize the scene I was making, so I tried to blot the hot oil off my chin with the overly starched– and as it turned out not at all absorbent– white restaurant napkin. The effect was to press the oil against my chin instead of wipping it off.
I handled the pain of the burn that evening quite graciously, with no one the wiser, and everyone else forgot about my gaff. However, in that social setting, I was unable to pray sufficiently to erase the effects of this as immediately as I would have liked.
The next day the thing was unsightly to say the least. Depending on how you looked at me, it seemed that I had dribbled hot chocolate embarrassingly all over my chin (since it stemmed from my mouth), or that I was healing slowly from a gash that was settling into a seriously scarred disfigurement.
Most people probably would have stayed home and refused to see anyone in that condition. And even though I was a make-up queen in my twenties, I do not own any now, and would have to go out and buy something to conceal it. I vetoed doing that as I was not sure that I wanted to contaminate this sensitive area with a bunch of vanity as it tried to heal. So I sallied forth into my plans looking either scary or stupid, but with a smile on my face, and a good attitude.
It turned out to be an interesting study on how people reacted, and how those different reactions made me feel, which is why I’m writing this post. It would seem like now it was other people’s turn for “however you handle it, it’ll probably be wrong.” This appears especially true with Christian Scientists, who are trained to have healing responses to whatever problems they encounter, both for themselves and in the world.
My husband’s approach was to counsel me not to mention it at all, nor to talk about it. My younger daughter acted like it was an honorable war wound and I should just embrace it (NOT!). I wanted to laugh it off and make a joke of it, for I could not afford to descend into the “oh no, maybe I am scarred for life” place.
When the three of us interacted with the grocery checkout clerk and bagger, my husband tried to deflect interest and not interact about it. But they were openly gaping at me with question marks in their eyes, so a joking comment from me explaining the situation dispelled the tension of the moment far better. It set them at ease, and made them not fear for me (or imagine scenarios that were far worse).
Other than that, my other interactions over this chin of mine were with Christian Scientists. On Saturday, we went to a carol sing given by acquaintances from the larger Christian Science community. I may see these people twice a year or less. It is fun to go and sing, and the best part of the event was that we got the “five golden rings” bit of the Twelve Days of Christmas song, and totally enjoyed belting it out, which was satisfying. Afterwards, there is a sampling of Christmas cookies with punch.
Anyway, how these people treated me was awkward at best. They know I am a Christian Science practitioner, and here I was walking in with a billboard of something unhealed right there on my face. They did not mention it, but while busy unseeing it, they “unsaw” me too, like the baby getting thrown out with the bath water. I felt like a pariah, something they didn’t want to deal with.
Let me be clear that I’m sure they meant well. I know they were trying to be considerate and give me space. They may or may not have discussed it later behind my back. I know they thought they were being supportive to me by not mentioning it, and if it had been on my husband’s face, that may have been the right approach.
But for me it was not. There was one wife there at the cookie table who discreetly motioned to me that I needed to wipe my chin, assuming I had dribbled all over myself. I thanked her, and said “I know,” and I think she was discomfited when I didn’t just wipe it off. I should have just told her what happened, but not knowing her well, I moved on, embarrassed. However, I appreciated the realness of that interaction with her far more than the high-minded piousness on the part of others, which came across to me as either feigned or forced. I wish I had handled it better with her, for I hope she didn’t worry later that she had blundered, since she was the one who actually saw the “me” that was there behind the chin.
My teacher in Christian Science used to advise us that “it is important to be normal.” This would be his answer to all sorts of quandaries. In this case, how would a “normal” person respond to a person who looked scary but wasn’t acting scary? They’d deal with it head on with curiosity and compassion, like the grocery store checkout people.
There is something wrong to me about a culture that needs to tiptoe around error while trying to combat it. Sometimes we need to acknowledge the error in order to minimize it. I guarantee you, that at that party, their well intentioned ignoring of the situation only made me more hyper aware of it.
Contrast that approach with a more healthy scene in my branch church the following Sunday morning. Pretty much everyone there gave me the friendly you’ve-made-a-mess-of-yourself-and-need-to-wipe-your-chin hand signal, or immediately queried, “What happened to you?” With my quick and bizarre remark that I burned myself on a portobello mushroom, we laughed for a second, and then moved on naturally to other topics.
Admittedly, they know me better, and have seen me more recently, so know this is not the end stages after some looming disaster. But the result was that since they treated me “normally,” I forgot all about it too. Eight of us went out to lunch after church and it was natural that it wasn’t mentioned or thought of again. I was seen, instead of obscured by a big unresolved question streaking my chin. Risking an uncomfortable moment to confront whatever problem was in the process of being handled, diminished it for everyone.
My husband didn’t understand my behavior. He said it was like I wanted people to notice. No, I wanted people to be normal. To me, avoidance in discussing an obvious problem, smacks of weirdness, insecurity, and fear, making me feel isolated instead of supported. Yes, I suppose it is my job as the one hurt to know they were trying to be supportive the best they knew how, but for me, immediate, sincere interest, followed by a dismissive conversation, dissolved it best.
Not surprisingly, Sunday afternoon, the burn scabbed over and then the scab began to fall off. Now it is gone.
But a lesson remained, not unlike what I learned after someone close to me died. The best approach is to mention something about it immediately, with interest in their welfare. Don’t worry about what to say, just express love and address the situation directly, if only briefly. Even if you say the wrong thing, saying nothing is worse. You can silently know that spiritually nothing happened, but humanly, since something seemed to have occurred, don’t pretend otherwise to the person going through it.
Go the extra mile with someone, and condescend to be human for a moment with those that find themselves in human predicaments. Sometimes we need to tell the truth about the lie, and that paves the way to feeling the presence of the larger Truth (God), which we all ultimately require and desire.