Almost four years ago, when my firstborn, Dominic, was five months old, my mother in law was carrying him down the stairs of our house in Northern Laos. She slipped and fell. Dominic’s knee hit the wood. His femur broke.
Luckily, the one X-ray machine in town was working that day. Luckily, the one X-ray technician was also working. Unluckily, by the time we held the film up against the sunlight and saw the sharp angles of that small bone in all the wrong places, the one flight to Bangkok that day had already left.
Even with good emergency medical insurance—which we had—the soonest we could get Dominic to the nearest decent hospital was more than thirty hours after the accident.
Even now, I find it very difficult to think about all of this. I can write down some of the details—how we splinted Dominic’s leg with cardboard and ace bandages, how we put him to sleep on the change-table mat to help keep him still, how I lay beside him on the floor, kneeling to breastfeed every time he cried out. I can write this down now, but I still shy away from thinking too deeply about how I felt during the long dark hours of that night, or while I sat alone in the hospital waiting room the next afternoon as the leg was being set and casted. My husband had to hold Dominic still through that particular anguish, because I couldn’t face it.
I tried to talk about all of this a couple of months ago during a speech I was giving to forty young mothers on post-natal anxiety. In retrospect, it was perhaps just a little unwise to wade publicly into this territory for the first time on a stage. In retrospect, it should not have surprised me that I could only get out a few sentences before I found myself faltering. Stopping. Stuck. Teetering on the brink of an incoherent, tear-soaked, free-fall.
But it did surprise me. I’m a psychologist. I’ve worked as a trainer for more than a decade. I’ve traveled around the world to speak with groups about stress, trauma, and resilience. My words had never deserted me before, not mid-presentation.
And Dominic’s accident was four years ago. After all, all’s well that ends well, time heals all wounds, and everything happens for a reason, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Years ago now—back when I was still the imagined star of this universal play called life—I believed these things. I believed that my trials were personally addressed and divinely hand-delivered. I believed the adversity I faced was specifically designed to refine me, purify me, and equip me. I basically believed that life was a nobler version of the Hunger Games. I was Katniss and God was the head gamemaker.
Then I started to train as a forensic psychologist and a crisis counselor. I began working in a maximum-security men’s prison. I served on a child death review team and worked on child sex-offender cases. I landed a job with a humanitarian organization and moved to the Balkans.
In the face of all this violence and suffering—feeling simultaneously helpless and responsible for having some answers—my neat little formula about adversity being a set of holy hurdles designed to strengthen us to run the good race in all triumph fell completely apart. And the superstructure of my faith sort of fell apart with it.
I was drowning in questions I couldn’t answer. Why was there so much suffering in this world? Why did humans have such a talent for violence? How could I reconcile the divine omnipotence I was taught to trust in as a child with lives torn apart by an earthquake, a famine, or other people? If God existed, if he were paying attention, why did he often seem so slow to act and so silent? How could he possibly choose to hold back and watch the bad unfurl alongside the good in the wilderness of freedom and choice? And why had I been given so much while others had so little?
Some changes in our lives and minds happen suddenly, born of formative moments. Others are long, slow pivots. With these, the gradual change in direction only becomes clear when you check your rearview mirror or raise your eyes to see a different vista stretching out in front of you. This is the sort of incremental existential shift that has unfolded in my life during the last dozen years.
I look back at my younger, anguished self now with the same odd hybrid of recognition and puzzled wonder that ambushes me whenever I see photographs of myself as a teenager. In those photos my face is unlined and softly rounded. I want to reach into those images hanging on the walls of my parent’s house and pinch my own cheeks.
I have to work to remember ever being that young.
I have to work to remember how unmoored I felt during that long season of relentless questioning.
And now? Now I find myself in a different place.
My very definition of faith has changed. My younger self counted faith as some combination of believing the right things, knowing the right answers, and keeping the right rules. Now, my ideas about faith inhabit far messier territory at the intersection of awareness, attitude, action, and intention.
My tolerance for sitting with mystery and living with paradox has increased, too. I still don’t have any answers to those questions about suffering that really satisfy me, but that somehow matters less. I no longer fear that my confusion completely undermines my belief in a God who loves us.
Finally, I’ve mostly stopped wrestling with these questions about suffering on that deepest of levels—not just because I’ve given up on nailing down satisfactory answers—but because continuing to churn over those questions didn’t help me. And during the last six years I haven’t had a lot of energy available for things that weren’t helping me.
In this first six years of our marriage, Mike and I have moved four times. During our five years in Laos we had two little boys and an unfortunate number of serious medical dramas. Dominic broke his leg. I broke an ankle and contracted two cases of cellulitis. Mike picked up a nasty case of staph and needed two different spinal surgeries for a herniated disc. We were beset by post-natal anxiety, depression, and chronic sleep deprivation (our wondrous boys, whatever else they might be, are not overly skilled sleepers). And, as the coup de grâce, four months after our second son’s birth, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. We had to leave Laos on 48 hours notice and decamp to Australia again for five months of tests, surgery, and three grueling rounds of chemo.
The one-year anniversary of Mike’s cancer diagnosis found us preparing to move from Laos to Vanuatu. Two and a half weeks after Mike took up his job as Country Director for a non-profit here, Vanuatu was devastated by the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Pacific. Cyclone Pam impacted more than two thirds of the country’s population and caused damages estimated at half the country’s GDP. Seven months on, a severe El Nino has triggered a major drought. Most of the crops that were replanted after the decimation of the cyclone have died, the wells are running dry, and this drought is just beginning.
In some soul-deep sense, I haven’t really caught my breath since that terrible day of Dominic’s accident.
When I see these sorts of hands (and far worse) dealt to other people I’m still tempted to wonder why certain things have happened. But as this torrid season has been unfolding for us, those why questions have seemed largely irrelevant. It’s taken too much energy to keep trekking on through the valleys to leave much left over for wondering why we were in the valley in the first place. And hanging onto those questions felt fruitless, anyway. I couldn’t hold those questions close and still reach for many the lifelines we encountered along the way—lifelines that offered respite, levity, and light.
When Mike was diagnosed with cancer, a friend, herself a survivor, sent a card.
“Good,” she wrote, “will come from this.”
That is what I believe today.
Bad, terrible, tragic things happen. Because… life. And these bad things are not usually letter bombs that are specifically addressed to me. They do not happen to teach me a certain lesson, to force me to pray more, or to deliberately place me under the sort of pressure that turns coal into diamonds. They generally just happen. Sometimes these trials won’t kill me, but they will cost me, weaken me, or break me in important ways. Ways that matter. And sometimes they are absolutely more than I can handle, at least for a season.
This I also believe.
What is happening and how we respond to wicked tricky curve balls in life still matters, even if those curve balls aren’t being hurdled specifically at us by a holy pitcher.
And good can follow in spite of these things. Even, often, from them.
This good might not come quickly. It might not be anywhere near the “amount” or “type” of good that I would judge justifies the suffering. It may not be good that benefits me. I might never even learn of it.
But good will come.
Some of it will come easily. Sometimes sunshine will catch the clouds above me just so, temporarily cloaking the grey in a celestial riot of color. But sometimes the good feels far harder won and far less glorious. It is true that our deepest struggles can birth deep honesty, empathy, and compassion, but (just like actual birth, I might add) this process is neither easy nor fun. It takes effort and courage to choose gratitude sometimes. To be vulnerable. To take someone’s hand instead of pushing them away. To ask for, and accept, help. To stare down and name pain and loss. To chart a new path for yourself when the road you intended to walk gets washed away. To let go of regret and anger. To hang on when there’s not a single silver lining in sight. To search out and take hold of hope.
At this point, it would be narratively and psychologically convenient if I could point you towards all the good that’s emerged in the aftermath of our physical frailties, Mike’s cancer, the Cyclone, this drought, Dominic’s accident.
But with this last, in particular, I still struggle. The initial break has long healed, and all seems to be progressing well. But because the bone snapped just above the knee–in the growth plate area–we will not know for sure until Dominic is well into puberty whether that bone will continue to grow straight and true.
Some good has come out of that day. That crisis only deepened my respect and affection for my husband, for example. But I would still unplay these grace notes in a heartbeat. I would undo that fall if I could.
That choice, however, has never been mine to make. All I get to choose is where I focus and how I respond.
Four years on, that is still a work in progress. Clearly, there are memories and feelings that I still need to unpack, name, and sit with. There are probably still tears to be cried, words I need to write, and things I need to say.
And the time for that will come.
But it will not be today, not when I am still so sleep deprived. It will not be this week, not when I am mothering our two children alone while Mike is traveling again, trying to help other mamas access enough safe water to drink. It will probably not be this month while the temperatures rise and the drought drags on.
And that is alright.
Because, right now I can celebrate the fact that, finally, I am learning to acknowledge and appreciate the good that can emerge from hardship without feeling that this good needs to outweigh or negate the pain.
So, today I will pause and point to the scattering of wildflowers that that are peeking up from the dry and battered ground. I will draw a deep breath and mark their vibrant defiance.
I will sit awhile with the beautiful, and the good.
I wrote this last month post in response to Sarah Bessey’s syncroblog marking the launch of her latest book, Out Of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith. Out Of Sorts is a tonic for anyone who is feeling conflicted about church and religion, or all tangled up about their own faith and what faith even means. It is an invitation to peace in the midst of a process that can be so acutely painful, so filled with doubt and fear and regret. If you’re in this liminal-faith space in your own life, check it out.
How have your views on suffering and struggle (or any other views) changed during the last decade?