Yesterday at church we had a lesson on adversity. The major theme of the lesson was that we need adversity in our lives because overcoming it makes us better people. I believe this is true. The most self absorbed and least empathetic people I’ve known are those who have never had a hard thing happen to them. The older I get, the fewer of those people I know. We all get knocked flat eventually, hence the need to address this fact in a spiritual context. People of faith have to reconcile belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the fact that life is terrifyingly unfair. The lesson kept returning to the message everything happens for a reason. Many of the women around me seemed to find that very comforting. I sat there and thought how I don’t believe that God deliberately smites people with problems to make them grow, but that I do think he allows natural processes and choices of others to bring pain. I’m sometimes angry with Him about that. I also thought of dear friends who I knew were hurting right that moment and how hurtful it would be if I were to say such a thing to them. In fact just the day before I’d given one friend this card which reads “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” (You should check out all the empathy cards at that link. They are the cards that cover the cases which are not covered by all the other cards. Brilliant.)
The thing is that when people are hit with something breathtakingly hard, they have to grieve. Part of that is being angry, really angry, often angry at God if they believe in one. Those of us who are bystanders to that pain want to be able to fix it. We want our loved ones to be at peace emotionally even if the hard thing continues. We say we want it for them, and we do, but we also want it for ourselves because watching pain reminds us that someday pain will come for us. And we have little control over what it will be or when it arrives. So we try to take the person who is in pain and jump them ahead to acceptance. We want to give them an answer. But that doesn’t work. Particularly if they are in the part of grieving where they need to be angry.
I don’t think I understood the value of anger in adversity until I read Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings. The book is a hundred small stories from her experiences counseling the dying, the recovering, the doctors who help the dying, and all those in the blast radius of cancer cases. In one of the stories, Ms. Remen says she is always glad when she sees anger in a patient. Anger comes from a vital will to live, to demand that the world be different and better. Angry sufferers are more likely to fight and to recover. Anger bestows strength and forward momentum. The gifts of anger can obviously be used in destructive ways as well as constructive, but the vital energy of it is critical to surviving hard things. I’ve recommended Ms. Remen’s book before, I do it again here. It is worth reading.
After listening for a time to the church lesson, I raised my hand and expressed the thoughts in the prior two paragraphs. I added that when we are close to someone who is wounded, stricken, injured, our job is to mourn with them, be angry with them, and walk along in their journey toward acceptance whatever peace is right for them. We can’t give them our answers, they must find their own. I’m pleased that many of the women who were saying everything happens for a reason, nodded along to this as well.
This morning a friend (who is mid-chemo therapy) posted a link to an article about Death and The Prosperity Gospel. My church is not the only one where “everything happens for a reason” is the party line. The article does a fantastic job of taking a look at the harmfulness of assuming that blessings and prosperity are rewards for good behavior. That doctrine is comforting because it provides the illusion of control. If we are good, then our lives will be blessed. I even think there is some truth to that. Our choices definitely affect our outcomes. This is an important lesson for people to understand: choosing well makes life better. Yet we also have to acknowledge that life is hideously unfair. We do not start on even ground. We are bequeathed unfair loads of challenges, economic status, and family situation at birth. This is compounded by societal unfairness that smooths the path for some people and smashes others. Our choices can make our lives better, but prosperity is not an accurate measure of goodness.
The paragraph in that article which hit me most was this one about grieving:
One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?
I’ve actually seen this happen. Years ago I was present when a friend of mine informed people that he had five years to live. I watched him bear the brunt of their reactions, person after person. He ended up comforting his friends about his impending death. I think of that, and I think of the article about How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It can be so hard when a friend gives you bad news to not try to make it better. It is hard to not attempt to exert control over the situation. Yet what sufferers need is for us to meet them where they are and just be with them in acknowledging that what they’re going through sucks.
I wish I had better answers than this, but I don’t and that is the point. I would dearly love to be able to fix it when Howard has a depressed day or when my son is so lonely and isolated that he lays in bed crying. Instead I just have to be willing to stay in the pain with them and remind them that the pain will subside, that there are choices we can make which may help, that they are loved by me and by God, both of whom hurt for their hurting. And that if they listen carefully, God will help them turn this experience into future strength and usefulness. If they need to be mad at God for not fixing it, I stay with them for that too. So does He. It doesn’t feel like enough, but over and again it is what is needed. Mourn with those who mourn. Comfort those who stand in need of comfort.