In life, every one of us will eventually go through some sort of trauma. It might be job loss, sickness, death of a friend or family member, or something else that turns your world upside down. The last years, I’ve dealt with a couple more Really Bad Things than a lot of my friends my age have had. Between the loss of my spouse, the loss of my father 9 months later, and the ongoing mess associated with reshaping my life after those incidents, it hasn’t always been a barrel of laughs in my world recently.
Fortunately, unless you are a complete hermit that’s gone off the grid, there is nothing like a personal catastrophe to bring well meaning people out of the woodwork. Depending on the crisis in question, you will have unexpected volunteers to do everything from sit with your spouse in the hospital so you can go home and take a shower, to people who set up a schedule to bring you food so that you don’t have to eat Taco John’s for dinner for the one millionth time because you’ve got to go to yet another doctor’s appointment, to people who will help you make funeral arrangements. Throughout my most serious issues, the most common way the well-intentioned try to help out, by far, is by offering words of encouragement. The problem? Too often our well meaning friends don’t think about what they are saying and stick their foot so far into their mouth that it would require heavy equipment to pull it back out.
I have often said that I could probably write an entire book about the ridiculous crap people said to me after my husband died – there were definitely some doozies. But hands down the most annoying one of all – and the one that seems to crop up no matter WHAT is going on is the following:
“God Has A Plan.”
Holy cannoli, if there was ever an overused sentence that makes me want to smack people in the face with a bag full of nickels, it’s the statement God Has A Plan. There are a few reasons for this.
*It comes across as insincere. In most cases, people say it because they don’t know what else to say. I know this happened to me hundreds of times after Andy died. It came across as hollow and rote, and therefore created distance between me and the very person that was actually hoping to help me. What’s interesting is that I have a friend who used phrases like God Has A Plan with me after Andy died, and much later I talked to the person about how this wasn’t a very helpful sentiment when I was in the grip of early grief. She told me that what she really wanted to say is “I’m sorry. This fucking sucks.” Sad thing is, hearing what she actually felt would have been orders of magnitude more helpful.
*It completely invalidates he feelings of the people who are suffering. Even if you truly, truly believe that <insert tragic circumstance> is the result of some divine plan, spouting off God Has A Plan to a person who just had the rug pulled out from under them is likely not as comforting as you might hope. In many cases, the statement will actually add guilt to the list of negative emotions they are feeling. As if it isn’t enough to deal with the grief associated with a major loss, now we have to feel bad that we aren’t grateful to God for having been dealt a colossally craptastic hand? No thanks. More likely we will want to tell God to take His plan and stick it where the sun don’t shine.
*It doesn’t make sense in the context of a God who gave the human race free will. Think about this – the assertion that God Has A Plan actually is kind of fatalistic. It implies that our efforts to Do The Right Thing actually don’t really matter all that much. I do not believe this. Now granted, part of the reason I don’t believe this is because I’ve got some control freak tendencies that I need to work on, but more broadly, I believe humans have the ability to make choices that influence their lives. I went to college in part because I believed it was highly likely it would help me have the type of financial resources I wanted – I didn’t just decide that if God wanted me to have money he would send it to me. I exercise and eat right because I know that those choices are highly correlated to good physical health and also contribute to good emotional health. We can choose to do right versus wrong, we can choose to believe in God or be atheist, and we can choose to engage in actions that are likely to give us results we want. If it was ever proven that I actually don’t have free will, I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning – though I guess in that case, I wouldn’t be making that decision now would I?
Some of you who have told loved ones in crisis that God Has A Plan probably think I’m full of crap and still believe it’s the best thing to say – but I’m willing to bet a few of you see that I may have a point. So the question becomes – what actually IS helpful? A couple of ideas.
*You could say what you think. If you are sad to hear of a tragedy, tell your loved one that. If you feel like it sucks and isn’t fair, tell them that. Be real, and be sincere.
*Don’t say anything, just be there. In tragic circumstances, what a lot of people really need is to know they have support from friends and family. If all you can do is sit with someone, do that. This is particularly useful if you think your true feelings might not be helpful (such as if a friend’s spouse died and you Think The Bastard Had It Coming), then just let them know that you are sorry they are hurting.
Sometimes people who aren’t helped by hearing God Has A Plan immediately following a tragedy are fine with hearing it later, as some time passes. I am not one of them. Three and a half years after my husband died, I still get upset when someone trots this statement out. I’m having a hard time with the notion that the relationship that made me the happiest in life was abruptly cut short, and that the likelihood that I will ever be a mother is somewhere between “Slim” and “None.” But there is a similar sentiment that I have found helpful lately.
Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, whohave been called according to his purpose.
I can’t say I ever explicitly studied this verse before a week or so ago, but when I went back to church for the first time a couple of weeks ago, the very first song of the service was “Your Love Never Fails”, a song I’d never heard before but which has a bridge based on this verse. In the service, the musicians repeated the bridge – which simply says “You make all things work together for my good” – over and over and over again.
At first, because I didn’t know the song, I didn’t really pay much attention to the lyrics. But at some point, I realized that it’s probably one of most comforting sentiments I’ve heard in ages. It doesn’t invalidate my feelings, and it isn’t a denial that I’ve been through some really bad stuff. It doesn’t make me feel like I can’t influence my path and my quality of life. Instead, it made me feel like maybe, just maybe I am doing better at muddling through this messy life than I’m giving myself credit for – and that by engaging in a balancing act between realizing I’m not in control, but also realizing that I can choose to use my proactive nature to press forward.
It’s a hopeful message – which is what I bet most people *want* to convey when they say God Has A Plan, but don’t quite accomplish.
It’s like me and God, we’re on the same team.
I like that.