Shirts That Say Things

Right now they are all the rage. You know what I’m talking about…the shirts. The ones with all the words. The statement tees. 

I have a bunch…Mind Over Matter. Keep Calm and (fill-in-the-blank). Good Times and Tan Lines. But First…Coffee. Namast’ay At Home. I Really Want Abs (…olutely all the tacos). 

Okay, that last one still makes me laugh pretty hard.

I like statement tees. They’re cute and fun, a playful way to express yourself. But I yearn for more. I want more than a few catchy phrases hinting at your life’s story. I want the whole story.

When I started struggling with this anxiety stuff, I remember wishing for a shirt that would explain this silent illness to people around me. I would appear calm and put together while crumbling on the inside. There was a disconnect, a fear of showing my true emotions, and shame and frustration in explaining it to people. Yes, I’m laughing and engaging in conversation with you, but I’m also starting to freak out because it’s getting kind of hot in this elevator and I am terrified of having a panic attack but I don’t want to be rude and interrupt you and I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand or care anyway so I’ll just sit here and act like everything is okay so you won’t think less of me but hiding my emotions makes me panic more so that’s why I am fidgety and nervous and taking deep breaths and sweating but please go on and ignore me and act like everything is totally fine. 

Phew. Try putting that on a shirt.

We are lucky enough to be heading out on vacation today. So of course I’m spending the morning at the airport, immersed in a sea of people. I do love the vast variety of people passing by, although sometimes the crowds can be a bit unnerving. All the while, I am vividly aware that my eyes are only witnessing what’s on the surface, and what I see is a fraction of what lies underneath.

I long for their stories. I want to know where they are going. Where they have been. I want to know their fears, what ails them, what their dreams are. I want to know what makes them human.

Of course, compassion is not always my first response . Take the guy behind me in his car the other day, impatiently honking and throwing his hands up while waiting for me to turn left at a busy intersection; he most certainly did not receive my compassionate thoughts at first. And I may have taken a liiiiitle longer to turn with the hopes of teaching him a quick lesson in patience. But beyond my spiteful reaction, I stop to wonder the reason behind his frustration. There’s always more to the story.

Think of the people you encounter everyday, the ones you pass judgment on without knowing so much as their outward appearance or spoken words. What story do they have to tell? Would it help us to understand their words or actions? Their appearance? Their attitude?

Some of them may not want to share their stories. They may be too painful to relive, or perceived as too shameful. They may believe they are all alone in their suffering, without an empathetic ear in the world.

If they only knew.

There is almost always someone else, someone who knows, who can empathize. They ache for a story to parallel their own. It’s out there, just often hidden in the most unexpected places, covered up and buried by the demons of pride and fear.

I’ve been trying something new lately. Whenever someone on the street asks me for money, I ask them, what’s your story? How did you get here? Okay, so I’ve only ever been brave enough to ask two people. The answers were short, generic even…lost my job, health went south, couldn’t pay the bills. But still I wonder…is there more? And does anyone care? How does it feel to be in their shoes? To be ignored and essentially forgotten? Do they even want to try? Am I insensitive to ask? Is their life’s story any of my business? And what can I do about it anyway?

It’s easier to walk by. Some would probably argue that it’s safer too. But these are people. And we as humans ourselves know that there are a lot of long, hard hours logged into being a living, breathing soul. As passers-by we only witness seconds of a full life lived. This is fascinating to me.

So again, what can I do? 

I think the most important thing I could do, that we all can do, is the easiest.

We can listen. 

We can stop and take the time to hear their story, their journey. It costs nothing to us but time, compassion, and a little patience.

And I don’t just mean the homeless guy on the streets, people. The people who need to be heard the most are often the ones you would never, ever guess. The neighbor with the perfectly manicured yard and a house that would make Joanna Gaines jealous. The mom at church whose family looks like they walked straight out of a catalog. The company president who is driving that brand new car.

What you see isn’t always what you get. The people that seem the most put together on the outside are often the ones who are falling apart on the inside.

Perhaps they are afraid, worried that any hint of internal issues may signal weakness and result in social separation and isolation. Maybe their outward appearance is their shield, a powerful suit of armor against the truth that suffocates them. Maybe to them, anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

I drove by a church the other day that had one of the best signs I’d ever seen. It said, Perfect People Not Allowed. It made me want to visit right then. I don’t remember anything else about the church, but that sign was all I needed.  This is the message I needed, that we all need.

No one is perfect. Come as you are. We are all worthy of love. 

If only we were all required to wear a shirt with those words. A shirt that sent the message that no matter what your story, you are important . I could argue that it should be our uniform for being human.

Don’t be afraid to share your story.  Even if the words aren’t printed on your shirt for the world to see, they are still there, imprinted on your heart.  Their content is what makes you unlike anyone else in the world, and yet so much like so many.  Your story can be a bridge, a new pathway, a shining light.  No matter what your statement is, just go ahead and put on that t-shirt. Do not apologize for it.  Wear it proudly and know that it was custom-made just for you.


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