I was eavesdropping whilst I was drinking coffee in a café the other day. I do this a lot FYI. Both, eavesdrop and drink coffee.
A man is telling a woman a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident. Her life was shattered in an instant. According to the man, she now lives in a state of chronic pain. She can’t use her legs.
He reports that she had been “a mess” before the accident, but the tragedy has resulted in some positive changes in her life. That – according to him – as a result of this devastation, she is living a “wonderful life”.
And then he utters the words. The words that I really, really, really hate to hear. Words that can be responsible for emotional and spiritual and psychological violence.
‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Bullshit. Words that can destroy lives. And words that are so very untrue.
These words are pretty much my least favourite thing for anyone to say. To anyone. I reckon its both bad thinking and bad advice. Yet I am certain that I’ve said them at more than one time in the past.
Because I think it’s the thing we say to someone when we don’t know what else to say. Or worse, when we have difficulty sitting with the discomfort of a loved one. Whether our loved one be experiencing a relationship break up. Or the death or a child. Or the diagnosis of a debilitating medical condition. By uttering this phrase it forces us to turn a blind eye to that fact that life is unfair. That it involves suffering. These words try to cover up or push aside very real pain. This phrase makes us feel more comfortable.
But we can’t get to feeling more comfortable or to becoming more helping, generous and brave without navigating through tough emotions like desperation, shame and panic.
When I’ve been in the midst of desperation, shame and panic, I have had people to say to me ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I’ve wanted to kick them in the face. Luckily, I was usually way too depressed. What I thought was “You have no idea what I’m feeling you goose. I can tell because you’re saying all of these things that have nothing to do with what I am going through right now. Many, many things happen for no reason at all. Even if there is a reason this has happened to me, I’m not ready to think about it. I just need to be sad right now. I wish you could just let me”.
And the whole time the goose is smiling at me. To help me feel better. Goose.
At the time I didn’t want to be fixed. And I couldn’t be fixed.
The harsh reality is that some things in life cannot be fixed. As Adversity Strategist Tim Lawrence puts it, some things can only be "carried".
For some of us we may be able to go through painful experiences and experience growth. For others, devastation may destroy lives. And when we replace grieving with advice and platitudes we run into trouble. Because we become absent from our loved ones. We stop connecting. We stop carrying.
The platitude and fixes and ‘everything happens for a reason’s can be so very dangerous to those we claim to love. We deny them the right to grieve. Or be in pain. And in doing so, we can be denying them the right to be human.
The most powerful thing we can do for each other when we are in pain is to acknowledge and remain. We can literally say the words – I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.
There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And it requires no training or special skills or expertise.
Being there is the harder part. Not leaving when we feel uncomfortable. Or when we feel we are not doing anything. Because it is in these places where the beginnings of healing are usually found. And every bit of healing needs human connection.
Not bullshit advice.