How and why the proposition of a higher order can hurt people……and what to do about it
“But isn’t that what a writer does?”
I wrestled with myself as I attempted to conjure this piece. Not able to recall the fine points of my most energy sucking “God’s Plan” encounter, I nudged myself to do some investigating.
“Come on, see if you can dredge up some old emails”, one part of me urged as another part resisted. It was the first week in September, a commonly trying if not wrenching time for those of us who wanted children but couldn’t have them.
For the first time in twelve years or so though, I found myself in a different place. Along with some quite manageable wafts of sadness I relished slips of contentment. Who knew this transitional week could be so sublimely laid back? All accompanied by the capacity to focus on and function within the every day – something I hadn’t fully experienced during this week in a long time. Knowing how fleeting and hard won these organic states are, suffice it to say I opted myself OUT of researching the particulars of my 2013 trauma.
Recalling how it felt was no problem, however.
It was a few hours before the follow up appointment to our second failed IVF (which in infertile circles is known specifically as the “WTF???” appointment). I found myself, for reasons forgotten, in a written exchange with a distant family member. Freshly spit off the failed fertility treatment conveyer belt yet again, I was looking for some basic human support. And yeah, I know. Funny to think I really was once that dumb.
What I got instead was an out of nowhere “God’s Plan” sermon, the supposed larger religious order of things in life bestowed upon me. When people are reeling from life tragedies, we get things explained at us a lot. As though our pain is the result of some personal misperception or incompetence. When in actuality it is the result of some very deep and often not asked for knowing. I consider it one of the most courageous places to be there is.
This entirely unsolicited God lecture functioned as a dismissal of my pain as it typically does. And thus also as an expulsion of my children to boot. I was left pathologized and scolded while feeling entirely alone and as though someone had opened a valve, draining whatever life force I had remaining right out of my body. This exchange also left me medically vulnerable, now in no shape to attend our just around the corner appointment. God or no God, handling a fertility doctor is already quite the feat in and of itself.
The way this interaction made me feel is more than enough to justify its inappropriateness. But there are many other reasons why people who have suffered a life altering loss of any kind should not be met with spiritual assault.
Starting with: What do people in the throes of a life altering traumatic loss actually need? On some level it is disturbingly uncomplicated – they need to be met. They need to be met in terms of being seen, heard, acknowledged just as they are and having space held for them. Non judgmental space, that is. Space that includes the agenda-less presence of one’s fellow humans. These are the things that allow for healing. A God’s Plan harangue generates NONE of these things. It is the antithesis of what grieving people need.
It is also normal for people undergoing life altering loss to find themselves, at some point in their process, in the midst of an existential crisis. I sure did.
“People can have an existential crisis when they start to wonder what life means, and what their purpose or the purpose to life as a whole is,” explains Katie Leikam, a licensed therapist in Decatur, Georgia.
This article from Healthline goes on to point out: “Everyday challenges and stresses may not provoke an existential crisis. This type of crisis is likely to follow deep despair or a significant event, such as a major trauma or a major loss.”
There’s more, this time from Wikipedia, including just some of the serious mental health impacts – “Existential crises are accompanied by anxiety and stress, often to such a degree that they disturb one’s normal functioning in everyday life and lead to depression.”
And on top of all THAT, specifically, the grossly underestimated experience of your children not getting to be born comes with its own set of prickly existential provocations.
As you can see, this is not a state upon which one, especially clueless bystanders, should be inflicting any additional harm. The state of doubting all of life as you once knew it cannot be tritely fixed by plugging in some correct formula as to how things “work” in life.
An existential crisis is about questioning. It is about liminal space. And I dare say it’s a sacred rite of passage in and of itself, whatever one might end up believing as they come through it. The last thing a person needs is to be hammered with some multiplication table version of law and order in the universe when their universe has been blown apart.
Another important angle to consider within the notion of God’s Plan is this: Many people have experiences that simply render the idea of a higher ordered plan just plain ridiculous. And yes folks, I believe I happen to be one of them.
The very Cliff noted version of my story: I was diligently and intimately involved in human reproduction on a single digit cellular level for a good three years. Throughout which my body performed quite well in many ways, and the underlying causes of our infertility were diagnosed and treated to the best of our knowledge. Both things cursed us with sound medical evidence we should keep going. But all led to nothing.
While all the while people both near and far continued to get pregnant for no distinct reason – some who would make good parents, and some who had no business touching the position.
Forced to keep going as we had six embryos on ice, our last treatment put me in breath droplet range of life’s arbitrary nature. The existence of these embryos greatly prolonged our suffering. But just like with the others my bond with them was unyielding.
The speckle of hope this last group represented was like the one teetering beam left of a building otherwise blown up, swaying this way and that in its unsteadiness until finally, it gives way towards the rest of the rubble, heaving up a sigh of dust that momentarily levitates and then sinks, blanketed in its own defeat.
Only serving to deepen my wounds, there was nothing our final treatments gave me, or taught me I didn’t already know. This is not a plan. This was torture.
Any attempts to pile on the notion a higher power driven conspiracy was involved was not in any way helpful or comforting. Or sensical. As a matter of fact, it was HORRIFYING. On multiple fronts. Because let’s remember, as much as people would like for it to, God’s Plan can’t exist in a vacuum. It has to be applied to the greater collective – which interestingly is the point where it tends to become clear it doesn’t hold much water.
And how on earth is one to respond to such a supposition anyway?? “Oh what’s that? It was someone else’s plan after all?? Well all-righty then! Never mind at all my pain and suffering and investment……I’ll just be heartily on my way now – toodahloo!!”
While “God’s plan” is the traditional verbiage, there are plenty of phrases conveying a similar world view that get regurgitated on those of us in the crucible of life’s not asked for misfortunes.
Yep, that’s right. God’s Plan has cousins.
The notions of “meant to be”, “everything happens for a reason” and “supposed to” (as in, everything is happening ‘as it’s supposed to’) to name a few. Or, as I call them, God’s Plan 2.0 – the new age spirituality dipshittery version.
A year out of treatments I had not yet accepted that, due to my extensive shattering I could not and should not be doing normal people things. Or even questionable normal people things, like attending a group psychic reading, for example. And so therefore I found myself in a banquet room with forty plus other people, everyone seething with anticipation over the impending reading with a well known local medium.
I didn’t get read initially – chalk that up to just one more realm where my children went unacknowledged – though I did stand in line at the end to ask a question. Coming across as quite well meaning and authentic, she read me on the spot, not knowing there was nothing she could have delivered that would give me a sense of meaning surrounding my losses or the way they happened.
Towards the end of the reading – wishing she could give me something more definitive perhaps? – she shrugged, threw her hands up and breezily quipped – “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be!” You know, like as in “Yeah, hey Oh Well!” I must have looked at her in complete shock as I tumbled back a few steps. I then got myself out of there as soon as I could, leaving her immersive exercise in spiritual bypassing to her and her alone.
Comments such as these incited much rage in me back then, and rightfully so I think. If I joined the “maybe your children weren’t meant to be” brigade, what kind of a mother would that make me? I found myself grinding over how she would feel if her children passed and she was offered a similar response. “Maybe you just weren’t meant to be a grandmother!” Said with inspired shrug and brisk cheer. Wonder how well THAT would go down.
What strikes me most about all aforementioned platitudes? They are, ironically, faithless. They deny faith in the compelling human witness needed in the face of life altering loss. They are absent of any faith in the capacity of humans to be present, compassionate and empathic. They turn a blind eye to core human experiences – the experience of being broken AND whole, weakened AND resilient, shattered AND mindblowingly resourceful. And they lack faith in the power and sacred depth of human pain, and of our innate human amplitude to process it. In short, they turn AWAY from exactly what is needed to heal and become potentially whole once again.
But there’s a reason people from all realms go this route, and no it’s not an “everything happens for a reason” kind of reason. Thank goodness.
The (most wonderfully revelatory and useful) book, Shattered Assumptions, Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, informs us that our internal worlds contain “a conceptual system, developed over time, that provides us with expectations about the world and ourselves. This conceptual system is best represented by a set of assumptions or internal representations that guide our interactions in the world and generally enable us to function effectively.”
Referred to as our “assumptive world”, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman proposes that our three most fundamental assumptions are:
The world is benevolent
The world is meaningful
The self is worthy
These core assumptions are described as “positively biased over-generalizations.” “Although not always accurate, they provide us with the means for trusting ourselves and our environment.”
These assumptions originate in infancy, resulting from decent or decent enough caregiving.
But it gets even more interesting. Or at least it does if you’re a random grief and trauma nerd like me…..
“….although these assumptions may be modified throughout childhood and adolescence, fewer changes are apt to occur in adulthood.”
Research firmly points “to information processing that serves to maintain old schemas (mental structures that represent organized knowledge) rather than change them.” Further, “research suggests that schemas persist even in the face of contradictory evidence.”
Janoff-Bulman goes on to point out that “fundamental change in our most basic assumptions about the world is the rarest of all conceptual change.” And on the rare event it does happen, it more usually occurs slowly without much upheaval. The mitigating factor for when one’s fundamental assumptions might be “suddenly and powerfully threatened”? Trauma.
I give you this background because I’ve come to understand “God’s Plan” orations and “Meant To Be” conjectures as, among other things, one’s defense of their core assumption of the world as a fair, meaningful place. For better and worse, it is to an extent how we humans are wired.
Janoff-Bulamn also remarks that “We are deeply threatened by the possibility that negative events, if random, could happen to us.” And “……the distributional principles of justice and control imply a sense of order and comprehensibility. Randomness essentially denies the meaningfulness of events.”
I’ve also come to a better understanding around being one of the apparently rare birds experiencing massive change in my adult core assumptions. I know I can never again entertain the God’s Plan/Meant To Be crew. And the majority of them are not likely to possess – or acquire in the future – the capacity to meet me in any way connective or relevant. As if not getting to be a parent wasn’t already separating enough!
My story and stories like mine can throw people into a self protective frenzy. I now understand this on some level, and maybe even hold a bit of a place for it. Especially knowing first hand how rough it can be to have even one of these basic core assumptions stripped from you.
That doesn’t mean I’ve come to tolerate bad behavior though. The whole time I was trying to conceive and in the years after, my indignation over these “law and order in the universey” type comments was palpable. Worse, it was often met with people pointing out that the people making these comments were “just trying to help”.
No, they’re not, I just know it!” I’d shoot back. Years later, and gloriously, I’d come across this research that I think proves it.
There are always exceptions of course, I can think of one time someone attempted to hoist God’s Plan onto me where I felt they really were trying to help. But most of the time these statements are weak hearted bids to duck someone else’s pain. And thus trample space that should be allotted to said person’s loss in order to make themselves feel better about being alive and safer about being in this world.
While the marks of these spiritual assaults vibrate for years, these days, though still offensive I do find them to be considerably less lacerating. And they do provide me with important information about the person before me – information that I now act on much more immediately than I used to. Any God’s Plan propositions will get a prompt “God’s got nothing to do with it” from me. “Meant to be’s” and the like receive a confident “Oh, I seriously doubt that”.
Layering our spiritual beliefs onto someone else’s lived experiences just simply doesn’t work. Moreover, it’s a massive boundary violation. A boundary violation made even worse when veiled as ‘just trying to help’ “wisdom”.
I hold space, albeit imperfectly, for the fact there are life experiences that perhaps make it reasonable for one to maintain the world is a benevolent, meaningful place. It would be helpful if those who held such views did the same for those of us who have, in tussling with mortal soul wounds, been forced face to face with a world more random and indifferent in nature.
And for those who find themselves with God’s Plan or God’s Plan 2.0 dangling on the tips of their tongues, perhaps the best thing to ask themselves is this: Are my words really for the suffering person in front of me? Or are they there simply to make ME feel better?
**Also check out one of my most favorite posts ever on the topic of spiritual platitudes, Everything Doesn’t Happen For a Reason by Tim Lawrence.