People I care about are going through the terminal illness of a family member. As we all tend to do, I grope for the right words of comfort and support, and don’t want to accept that there are no “right” words.
There may not be any words that are the right ones, but there are some I try to avoid. There are phrases that, when uttered by another person, make me wince. So, because of my personal bias, I don’t like to say them to anyone else.
High on my list of these is: “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
I understand the spirit and intention behind these words. I understand they’re meant to imply that a loving God can and will support us even through times we don’t think we can take. I don’t even have a problem with the word God, although I might use a different word for the “thing bigger than myself” I believe in.
My problem with this phrase has to do with my opinion that it’s just not true.
God/life/the universe does sometimes throw things our way that we cannot handle. Some things, or combinations of things, do break us. Don’t believe me? Walk through your jail or local psych ward. Hell, walk down some city streets. We do get broken.
Maybe I’m just quibbling over semantics. Maybe it’s the word “handle” that I just don’t like. I don’t know. I just imagine someone sitting in the psych ward, or rehab, or in a cubicle in the ER getting cuts stitched up, and thinking they’ve failed. Someone told them God would never give them anything they couldn’t handle, and they failed to handle it, so they have done something wrong. They must be worse than other people. They’ve let God down.
Some things are not handle-able. They cross a line. The location of that line is different for everyone. Outer and inner circumstances cross the line and become forces of nature, and we do not cope with them. They handle us, and when it’s over we are not the same person.
Does this mean some source of strength and love from the universe is not there for us? I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that this mysterious source won’t necessarily keep us from breaking–even if it’s right there to love us through it when we do.
So I don’t like to tell people their God won’t let them break. I don’t know if what they are currently experiencing will break them or not. I don’t know how many pieces they will shatter into if they do, or what shape those shards will have, or what type of form the bits might create when they get put together again.
When I gave birth to my daughter, I processed the pain of the first hours using breathing and moving and vocalizing. I rocked, growled and moaned, but always with some feeling of control and power. I felt proud of myself; I was being like the empowered birthing women I had read about.
Then something happened; the pain got a lot worse and I started to lose it. I began to panic. I tried every technique I had been doing, and some others. The people around me encouraged me and told me I could do it. It did not help.
Then the midwife said something that made the difference. She said “You need to stop trying to manage the pain. Let go.” I clutched her hand, afraid, but her words resonated with me. She was acknowledging that this was bigger than me. It was unmanageable, and she didn’t expect me to manage it.
For the next half an hour, I stopped coping. Technique went out the window; I writhed and flopped like a fish, as my body tried to escape the pain. I moaned and cried, no longer trying to keep my voice low and fierce. The pain managed me, and as I became its bitch I told myself that if it got any worse I would demand an epidural. Or a C-section.
My daughter was born quickly, amid much screaming, after this change in my demeanor. Later, I learned about some factors that had made my labor unusually intense. Though the experience was empowering in the end, I did not come from it unscathed. I had flashbacks, and the physical changes of pregnancy and birth altered my brain forever. I’ll always be grateful to that midwife for encouraging me to let go. By acknowledging the sheer power of what was happening to me, she helped me be at peace with having been changed by it.
I’ll continue to grope for words to comfort those who suffer–words that give some kind of support without ever implying that I, or some divine, have any expectations about the exact course and consequences of their pain.