Albert Camus once wrote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Carl Jung’s version: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” During the two years of my severe depression, I would have replied, “Please shoot me then, because I never asked to be alert.”
Yet I do believe I’m a stronger person today than I was two years ago.
I thought about those perks the other day when I ran into my friend, Ellen, at the grocery store. We were in the parking lot of Giant Foods when I asked her about her daughter who had been hospitalized in October for severe depression.
“She’s good!” Ellen said. “In some ways, I’m glad she fell to pieces…because now she’s put together better.”
Contrary to the tale of Humpty Dumpty, recovery from severe depression is similar to the metamorphosis, or chrysalis, of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Yes, butterflies are stronger and more beautiful than caterpillars as a result of their struggle. In my dark night, I became a more loving, forgiving, and empathetic person because, as Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
But I’m still not sure if I agree with the notion that God gives you only what you can handle. I copy the sentiments of one of my Beyond Blue readers who said, “Don’t trust me so much.”
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians says: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with your testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
I’ve learned to restrain from saying that to a person in the midst of a tragedy. Wanting so badly to console my twin sister, I uttered Paul’s promise to her after her nightmare labor with little Henry: he was deprived of oxygen for some time during the birth (they don’t know how long) and subsequently has developmental delays and special needs.
Paul’s words were meant to console. But boy do they tick off cancer patients, 9/11 widows, and Katrina victims (just to name a few). I certainly can understand why.
What about the Beyond Blue reader who posted this comment on the combox of one of my posts:
My best buddy died January 4, 2007. He was only two years old. He had an operation and died the next day. And you say God is here? Right now? Because he wasn’t with Adev on January 4. My faith has left me. And I wonder why everyone else can still believe after January 4.
What about the family of Katherine’s preschool friend who just lost their three-month-old to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) last January?
Does God really think they handle that? I’m not sure I could.
Sometimes I am able to see a strain of God’s order in all of this madness–a subtle pattern in the chaos, much like spotting the tropical rainforest in one of those 3D posters, that, to most eyes, looks like a bunch of dots. When coincidences (or mini-miracles, as I call them) happen, or when details flow together in such synchronicity that you know it’s meant to be, I say to myself, Aha! So that’s what the big guy was thinking! And I restore the Creator’s powers in my own mind (which I had stripped last tragedy).
Oprah told the 1997 graduating class of Wellesley College that failure is God’s way of saying “Excuse me, you’re moving in the wrong direction.”
That’s certainly true with some of my disappointments.
If I had landed the publishing job in New York that I so badly wanted after graduation, then I wouldn’t have met Eric (and had David and Katherine). My dad’s death, as bitter and heartbreaking as it was at the time, has healed and united our family. My depression has certainly added a new depth and candor to my writing (and to my life), and has generated a surprising rebirth in each. And, most recently, my hip injury has forced me to rediscover my love of swimming and biking.
Maybe all of it–the suffering, trials, chagrin–are part of the grace we profess to believe in as Christians. Maybe, as Kathleen Norris says, “for the grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed.” Or maybe crap just falls from the sky, and God is with us as we sort out what’s manna and what’s poop. Either way, says Norris, “spiritual life is not a progression, but a constant turn of withering and blooming, sin and repentance, exile and return,” and we so aren’t holding the helm. As the poet expresses so articulately, “It is God … who has the power to make the barren places bloom, and strike water from the rock.”
During those times I can’t see God’s hand in my life–when I’m quite positive that He’s abandoned me–I think it’s okay to swear at my Creator. Because if my relationship with God is organic and real and like all my other relationships, it’s going to involve ugly conflict and awkwardness and screaming and silent treatments and everything except for the make-up sex. In fact, Catholic author Ronald Rolheiser writes in “Forgotten Among the Lilies” (But Recalled on Beyond Blue) that wrestling with God is a form of prayer. That might be a stretch, but I’ll buy it for now:
The refusal to accept the harshness of God’s ways in the name of his love is an authentic form of prayer. Indeed the prophets and saints were not always in the habit of simply saying, “Thy will be done.” They often fought, challenged, squirmed and begged as a way of saying “Thy will be changed!” I suspect that they did sometimes annul divine plans. God wants to be struggled with, especially if we have been living in his house for a while.
There. A man of the cloth (and a bestselling author besides!) has just sanctioned my nasty letters to God and given me permission to read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as fiction. He has just confirmed that it’s okay to be a mess as you ask the questions. In fact, one of my very favorite quotes, by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, says just that–to begin to love the questions themselves:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Image courtesy of jbo.wikipedia.org.