This poem was inspired by Maya Angelou’s “We Wear the Mask,” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Mask.”
We define grief as tears, not smiles
heartbreaking groans, and complaints
an emotion-gripped body that bends and aches
a display of physical pain is how we mistake
what it means to grieve.
We lookout for people who are visibly sad
a distraught tone of voice, a mind gone mad
a person who neglects to eat, but drinks
or maybe have a hard time falling asleep.
The physical signs of a distressed soul are what we see for ourself
and to this, we say, “careful now, of your mental health.”
But what of the people who are not so physically troubled?
They wake up each morning
their heads held high.
They could wallow in self-pity but prefer to fly.
They spread their cheeks, so we see their teeth,
and somehow, deep underneath the grief, they smile.
Their shoulders do not droop or bow or lean,
and from their eyes, no tears be seen.
We run to them for advice, and in their ears, we spill our guts
“They are pillars of strength, no matter what,”
and this is the mistake.
Right there in those smiling faces, see the invisible rock.
The chains of depression’s coffles
it’s whips and lash and knock
its uninvited entry when our smiling support goes home
and lay their pillars on their pillows
before crying themselves to sleep.
In a world as destructive as this one,
they need not make it known
that even the happiest person
still cries and loathes and moans.
Even the most joyous of us, with praise smeared on our lips
have some load to carry,
we wish to be helped with.
But if physical anguish is the only measurement
by which we weigh grief
then these people don’t have a chance
of attaining such release.
And yet, where would we be without these rays of light
who helps us, if for a moment, to believe all is right?
Where would we be without people with such faith?
Those who pull us from the grave,
even as they stand on the edge of death and wait?
Too solid to bend and too proud to break.
They go on permitting us to believe
pain is but a physical thing.
This is the mistake.