A few months ago, our office switched its e-mail over to a business version of gmail. One of the features of our new e-mail is that a little colored circle is displayed by each person’s name showing whether he or she is online.

I have to admit, I really like it when I see other people on staff with the green circle by their names. According to Google, this means they are “available.” Because I work from home, it’s easy to start feeling isolated and alone as I complete my tasks each week. But when I see those green lights next to other people’s names it makes me feel like I’m part of a team.

One person might be in the office. Someone else is at Caribou. Another person might be working from home. But we are all working together. For the same goal. And I don’t feel so alone.

I’ve also noticed that when I see someone’s green light, I tend to bug them more than I would if they weren’t online. I ask them questions. I send them documents to review. I kind of assume that, just like the green light says, they really are “available.”

Yesterday my green light was on almost all day. The boys were at camp. My daughter had a play date. The toddler was happily playing or napping most of they day. So I took advantage of the time to get caught up on a ton of work.

I was sending and receiving e-mail and working away as if everything was peachy. But I was fighting a nasty cold and felt horrible all day. I was tempted to set a custom message by my green light: “Cough, cough. Sneeze, sneeze. Please feel sorry for me.” It just seemed wrong that my green dot was shining brightly as if everything was perfect when I was really struggling.

And isn’t that how it often goes in our real, offline world, as well?

Most of us at least try to put on the green light when we are out in public. We smile and joke. We pull ourselves together. We walk around with our big “available” button shining brightly. But wouldn’t it be kind of nice if we could change our status to put out a warning of what is really happening on the inside?

Last Saturday, I was watching my daughter’s soccer game, along with the toddler and my 8-year-old son. My husband had to take the 10-year-old to another field for his game. It was hot. We were hungry. It was naptime. It was humid. There wasn’t a shade tree in sight.

It had been a struggle to get everyone where they needed to be, and I was just relieved that the toddler had found a little hill about 10 feet away from me that was keeping her busy. She loved marching up the tiny incline and then running back down it. At the top of the hill, a woman was sitting in a lawn chair next to a building, which was giving her a little shade.

My son was hovering nearby to make sure the toddler didn’t wander too far or fall down.

“Is that your baby sister?” the woman asked. “Is that her stroller?”

My son nodded, as I headed over to prove the baby really did have a mother.

“Well, you better put that baby in the stroller before her head gets sunburned,” she ordered.

I assured the woman I had covered her in sunscreen.

“Well, her head is pretty bare, and I can see that she has very fair skin.”

At that moment, my light turned bright red. My green light was done. Off. Finished.

I wasn’t going to bother explaining that I had tried six times to get the toddler to keep a hat on her head. It would serve no purpose to try to tell her that I’m neurotic about applying sunscreen. Or that confining the 18-month-old to a stroller for an hour when it was 98 degrees outside would have created such a loud protest that she would be begging me to release the child from her confinement.

I was just relieved we had succeeded in getting all four children where they needed to be at the right time. I was happy that no one was crying. I was overjoyed the toddler was having fun running up and down the hill so I could actually observe a few minutes of the game. I had zero desire for anyone in the family to get a sunburn, and even though it did look like she was probably going to be burned to a crisp, I had enough experience as her mom to trust that the extra coating of sunscreen was going to work.

The whole interaction was a good reminder to me. I need to take more time to find out what people have gone through to get to the place they are. They might look pretty and put together with their nice green light shining on the outside. But a harsh word or an unsolicited comment might just knock them over.

I think it would be helpful if we had the option to set our real-life “status.”

“I have a cold.”

“I only slept three hours last night.”

“I just got some really bad news.”

I need to remember that not everyone is “available” for whatever I might feel like throwing their way. Green light, or not.

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