I never guessed my “perfect” friend had secret struggles.
by Carla Barnhill, February 20, 2008
I hadn’t seen Cheryl in 20 years. But when we met for lunch last week, we felt we were right back in college. We laughed about the numerous guys we’d liked, the cruddy apartment we’d shared our junior year, and the mystifying way 20 years suddenly seemed like an instant.
I’d been a little nervous about seeing Cheryl. She’s now an important businesswoman married to an important businessman. I knew she’d drive a nicer car, wear better clothes, and live a far more interesting life than mine. None of those accomplishments surprised me. Even in college, Cheryl had always appeared confident and smart—knowing what she wanted and how to get it. She’d stayed focused and above the fray, as if she didn’t worry what anyone thought of her. Cheryl had been ready for adulthood. I, on the other hand, still had felt like a child.
Cheryl walked into the restaurant looking fantastic. But after we hugged and started retracing our steps over the past 20 years, she admitted she’d traveled through some bumpy times. Cheryl spoke honestly about struggles that had started back in college. I listened, empathized, and shared some of my own rough patches. But I also looked at Cheryl with new eyes. I’d lived with this person for a year—the year at the heart of some of her worst moments—and I’d never known the depth of her hurt or the extent of her struggles.
Honestly, she hadn’t known their extent at the time, either. As a 20-year-old, Cheryl hadn’t had the words to name the kind of pain with which so many young women wrestle. The pain of not knowing who they are, of looking to other people—usually the wrong people—to tell them. The pain of being a young woman who never felt truly loved or known or understood.
Ironically, I’d felt the same way then. I’d been hurting, too, but, like Cheryl, I couldn’t have named that hurt if I’d tried. Now, 20 years later, we both marveled at how well we’d hidden all that turmoil, even from the girl in the other bunk bed.
When I got home from lunch, I started thinking of all the other women I’ve admired. Most likely they, too, covered over secret pain, struggles, and heartache. I realized that the tremendous pressure women face to “have it all together” often keeps us from being honest with ourselves—and each other. But above all, one lesson has stuck with me this last week: No one ever really knows what’s happening in someone else’s life. That person in the power suit has endured betrayal or hurt or ridicule or rejection at some point in her life. That friend with the perfect marriage sometimes feels unloved and unsure of herself. And that girlfriend with the seemingly charmed life wonders why she’s not married, why she can’t get ahead at work, why she’s still worried she’s a disappointment to her parents.
Everyone struggles. Even the apostle Paul—who probably seemed as if he had it all together—admitted openly he didn’t. Yet in talking about his failings with the church at Corinth, he shared the message he’d received from God: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8–10).
I used to envy Cheryl for being confident and poised, and refusing to be a people pleaser. Now, I love her for being a woman with all those traits and yet so many more. She’s funny and brave and filled with new dreams for her life. During the last week, I’ve looked at my other friends with new eyes, too. They aren’t invincible. They aren’t perfect. They’re just women like me—doing their best, dealing with life, and trusting in grace.