When Life is Messy & People's Advice SUCKS!!!
Through many years of facing problems and trying to help other people with their problems, I have learned some very interesting things about American culture and, more specifically, church culture. In general, we don’t have a lot of patience for people’s problems. We tend to think that people should be “over” things in a few months. When people come to us for empathy, we tend to give advice instead. I’m glad that I have been on the receiving end of this shortcoming in our culture because I’ve learned a lot about coping and about caring for hurting people. Here’s one of my stories:
When my oldest son, Nathan, was a little over a year old, his doctor noticed that he was not growing. Naturally, I was extremely concerned about Nathan so I shared his story with anyone who would listen. I freely shared my concerns at church and occasionally with total strangers at the grocery store who made the mistake of smiling at me! I am not sure exactly why I shared so freely. I suspect that, deep down, I was trying to manipulate God by stacking up a whole bunch of prayer requests. “Look God, a bajillion people prayed for Nathan, You HAVE to fix this now!” (And that is a subject for another day!) Meanwhile, I went for all kinds of tests for Nathan and eventually found out that his pituitary gland was not functioning and he needed to take daily growth hormone shots.
As I overly shared during this whole process, I was not prepared for the advice and underlying judgments that I was going to get from people. I was constantly being questioned about his diet. Luckily, we had a super supportive nurse that prepared me for the diet question. She reassured me that Nathan’s problem could not be caused by poor diet. She pointed out that children in 3rd world countries who are extremely malnourished still grow taller. Despite this obvious truth, people were looking for a simple solution to my problem that they knew so little about so the nutrition advice came rolling in.
The nutrition advice was sadly the nicest advice. If you can apply nice to suggesting that I feed my child so poorly that he is not growing! The worst thing that several people suggested was that maybe I should hug my child sometimes. Luckily, at the time, the advice seemed comical to me. I adored Nathan. I don’t think an hour went by without him being hugged, cuddled, read to, or carried. Later, I reflected on the advice and realized how absolutely insulting it was: “When you see all of the neglected children in the world (who are still growing!), you can actually look at me and to my face suggest that my child is so neglected of physical touch that it keeps him from growing?!!!”
Oh! And one time, I had just found out that in addition to this problem, my middle son, Stephen needed to see a heart specialist because of an irregularity with his heart. I was sitting in my car crying when the youth pastor knocked on my window. He asked what was wrong. I told him about both boys and their health issues. I swear, I’m not making this up! He said to me, “I once was sad because I had no shoes, until I saw a man that had no feet”! He then smiled this huge smile, patted me on the back and walked off like he had just parted the Red Sea or something. I still want to reach back into my memory and smack him! (In the most loving Christian way possible, of course!!!)
Eventually, after hearing all of the awful advice, I wanted to make up a business card that said:
"Thank you for your concern with my current situation. Before you give me any advice, please be aware that I have been LIVING with this problem for months now. I have read everything I could find to read. I have spent countless hours getting advice from professionals. And I have poured my heart out in prayer to an extent that I don’t even know how to describe. I welcome input from caring people but please don’t dismiss my problem or act like there is an easy, obvious solution. I want to know that we are going to be OK. I want to know that I have hope. I want you to care about how hard it is. Be honest and real with me. I don’t need you to make my problem go away. I need my problem to matter to you."
I never made that card. Though I’m still considering making one for people to use… I did learn a lot through this struggle (and many others!) So…with all of my 46 years of wisdom, I offer the following advice for grieving and getting support in life’s messiness:
- Understand and expect “pat” answers to your problem: People care but they don’t know what to say. Don’t be insulted by their insulting advice. They haven’t thought through the implications of what they are saying. They just want to make you feel better.
- Actively seek support from people who have been through something similar to what you are going through. It isn’t really possible for people to completely understand how you are feeling unless they have been through something similar. Look online. Ask leaders in your church. Follow up on leads from friends of friends. (And counseling is a good thing too!)
- Allow yourself to grieve. When you are dealing with disappointment, loss, or a struggle, it takes time to heal. Give yourself time. Some hurts, for example, dealing with a death, are never going to be completely “OK” we just learn to process the pain and live full, productive and happy lives with the hurt, but it is never “a good thing” (though good can come from it.)
- Learn the truth about who God really is. If I judged God from the stupid things that people said to me when I was grieving or struggling, I would think he is a giant cosmic jerk. (to put it nicely!)
I promise that when you pour your heart out in prayer over your problems, God wants to surround you with his love, acceptance, and guidance. Don’t let messages to the contrary keep you from sensing this!!!!
- Understand that LIFE IS MESSY: I personally think that a lot of the stupid things people say when we are struggling come from each of us being uncomfortable with the fact that life is messy. When you are grieving or dealing with a problem, you need to understand that everyone goes through hard times. You were not condemned to suffer a special kind of suffering because of some cosmic need to punish you. Even if your actions caused your problems, you are still experiencing life and consequences not a unique form of suffering carved out for you. You aren’t alone in the world because of your suffering. You are united with all of humanity because of it. We ALL suffer, from our own mistakes and through circumstances out of our control.
- Understand that the messiness of life makes people uncomfortable: Admitting that life is messy means admitting how little control we have over the things that happen. This is an extremely uncomfortable place to be. I have seen this most vividly when a young person dies. Parents will say unbelievably hurtful things to grieving parents because the tragedy is so horrific for us to deal with. We don’t want to see their pain and think “this could happen to me” so our minds console us with ways that this couldn’t happen to us. Blame is a way to feel in control. Understanding that this happens, can help you process it when the blame is pointed towards you.
And finally, I’m not sure that handing out a snarky card with your feelings on it would be a good idea, but I will totally have your back if you do!!!
I hope this encourages you today with whatever you are dealing with in the messiness and beauty of life!!!