The Meaning of Okay

I’ve been thinking for a while about the meaning of the word “okay.” It’s odd, because that word is fairly nonchalant, but in my experience can be the most comforting and appropriate thing to say to someone when they’re in pain.

When I was seeing a therapist last fall, one of the things she had to tell me almost every week was this: “Just take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘It’s okay.'” I started walking around with that in my head like a playlist on repeat. It’s okay, it’s okay.

Of course, it wasn’t really (nonchalantly) okay. I was trying to cope with my Rheumatoid Arthritis, with surgeries and with some pretty serious depression. But saying that to myself seemed to help. Those times when someone would put their arms around me and say the most comforting things had the word “okay” in their gestures or in their speech.

Normally when I am trying to comfort someone going through something–diagnosed with RA or something else–my go-to phrase is, “You’re going to be okay.” When I say this, I mean: Everything will be okay. Maybe not today, but eventually.

But today I couldn’t say that to someone.

When I visited my older sister in Asia last year, I had tea with a lot of people–but there’s one house I remember particularly. The hostess was a young, pretty woman who had learned English and majored in something far smarter than me (I think Biochem). She was married, and her little daughter spent most of the tea teaching my older sister to read out of her kiddie book from school. The woman’s mother-in-law was there, too–an ancient old woman who made us all laugh with her blunt comments. (She was really amused that I had a hard time keeping my chadar draped over my chest.) The mother-in-law was moving to America soon, and was afraid, so my mother and sister assured her that she wouldn’t get yelled at for wearing a chadar.

“If I saw a little old lady in a chadar, I would want to run up to her and kiss her cheeks!” I remember my sister saying.

During our time in the house, another woman came in to join us. She talked about the war, about her fear that the city would be taken again, and she cried quietly and wiped her eyes with edges of her chadar. I told our hostess, who was translating, that I prayed this would never happen. She gave me a look that was warm with gratitude, like an embrace, and thanked me softly.

I’ll never forget that afternoon.

About a month ago the old mother-in-law died just before leaving for America.

My older sister emailed me today to say that the woman, the pretty Biochem major, has just been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I wrote her an email, but as I started to say some of the things I would normally say, I caught myself. This woman is living in a war zone and has seen more suffering in her life than I can imagine. She has no air-conditioning, no healthcare comparable to what I have here. She’s unsaved. She will not be okay, even eventually.

It just broke my heart. I’m immeasurably blessed here. I have so much luxury and comfort. I can go to a therapist who tells me it will be okay–and it will be, eventually. I have certainty in a healed body, someday.

I pray for this woman–that someday our hands will have no scars and our joints no pain and we can laugh together like we did over tea on that hot afternoon.

That’s what okay means.


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