When life gives you lemons, so they say, you should make lemonade. But what about when life comes along and plants a whacking great lemon tree right in the middle of your neatly manicured world? What then? Making lemonade – making the best of a difficult situation – will only get you so far. There are some difficulties in life that are just too big for a trite little aphorism.
I’ve got friends at the moment going through bereavements, miscarriages, long-term unemployment, broken marriages, chronic illnesses, depression…the list goes on. The lemon tree in the middle of my life is singleness. In Andrew and Rachel Wilson’s it is the fact that their young children both have regressive autism.
As Andrew wrote on Think Theology recently, he and Rachel have just written a book about their experience of parenting children with special needs. The Life You Never Expected is about far more than just that, though. It’s about fighting for your marriage when all the odds are stacked against you, it’s about the theology of healing, the adaptability of humans, a bloke called Malchijah, the Lord’s Prayer and the funny things an autistic boy says about his dog. And it’s about grieving.
Both Andrew and Rachel talk in the book of the refuge they have found in the Psalms. The raw honesty of these songs of lament when you feel like you’re in a pit and God is nowhere to be seen have given the Wilsons the words and the way in to expressing what we uptight Brits tend to prefer to keep hidden. “And so it was,” Andrew writes, “that I found myself lying on our playroom floor, in the foetal position, sobbing uncontrollably. (I have always had a taste for the theatrical.)”
Andrew and Rachel had to learn to lament. They had to learn that God was big enough to be able to absorb all the hurt, anger, fear, distrust and distress they could throw at him. When the circumstances of your life aren’t as you always dreamed they would be, it’s OK to feel sad and to express that sadness. It won’t make anything worse, and it might just help…
The power of sadness
Last weekend I went to see the latest Disney/Pixar offering Inside Out. Probably the saddest kids’ movie since Bambi, there were few dry eyes in the house by the end (some were even weeping by the end of the ‘Short’ before it – the story of a lonely volcano. Yes, really!). For those who haven’t heard the hype yet, Inside Out is the story of 11-year-old Riley who moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But it is told from the perspective of the emotions inside her head – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. It’s a brilliant concept, with some absolutely genius ideas and lines in it (like when Joy knocks over two boxes marked ‘Facts’ and ‘Opinions’, spilling their contents all over the floor. Looking in dismay at the jumbled heap of Mah-Jongg-type tiles she says “Oh no! All these facts and opinions look so similar I can’t tell which is which…”).
The core of the plot is that everyone agrees that things work best when Joy is at the console in Riley’s ‘Headquarters’, but after the move, Sadness starts meddling, and Joy and the others have to battle to get things back on an even keel. Joy and Sadness get trapped in Riley’s memory archive and, in one pivotal scene, it is Sadness who holds the key to their success. The two emotions have met up with Bing Bong, Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, and he is helping them catch the Train of Thought, which will deliver them back to Headquarters. When Bing Bong discovers that some of his favourite places in Riley’s memory are being bulldozed to make room for new experiences, Joy’s relentless optimism can’t break through his despair and, with time running out, he sits down, unable to help them any more. Sadness goes and sits beside him and simply offers him empathy. At first Joy thinks this is a waste of time – they have to catch that train – but the kindness of someone being willing to sit and listen enables Bing Bong to weep over his loss. Before long he feels strong enough to take a deep breath and carry on. Joy begins to realise that Sadness does have a place and a value after all and…well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens. (Take tissues.)
It was as I travelled home from seeing the film that I read the last chapters of The Life You Never Expected, and came across this line from Rachel: “For us, paradoxically, openly grieving before God and before people has been (and continues to be) vital to living a joy-filled life.”
There are two things I want to pick up on in that sentence. One is the idea of living a joy-filled life, even while God isn’t answering your fervent prayers for your situation to change. Andrew and Rachel speak a few times throughout the book of the importance of choosing to put God first, of deciding to worship him, of taking charge of your emotional responses and not being governed by them. That was one significant weakness of Inside Out; it nowhere entertained the idea that you don’t have to allow your emotions to run the console of your life. Anger can be quashed and controlled, fear can be overcome. You can choose joy, even when all your circumstances are sad. Andrew and Rachel each have a chapter on ‘Joy fuel’, the things that help them to bring their focus back to God and realign their priorities with his. They’re well worth reading.
The other thing I want to pick up from that sentence is the idea of grieving both before God and before people. Living lives of joy does not mean putting on a happy face and pretending everything is OK when it’s not. Sometimes it means just sitting down and having a good cry. Sometimes, like Bing Bong, we need a friend to help us get to that place. But we also need a praying community around us.
Community is key
I’ve recently edited a new edition of Viv Thomas’ book Second Choice. It’s still in print in its original paperback format, but will be out soon as an ebook. Second Choice follows the story of Daniel and his friends living through a life that did not turn out at all like they expected – in captivity in Babylon, in servitude to the enemy kings, in mortal danger every time the king fears he’s not going to get his way… These men are not where they thought God intended them to be, yet they live well in the midst of it all, maintaining their faith while rising to prominence in the courts of successive kings.
One of the factors Viv identifies in Daniel’s ability to navigate this second choice world successfully is the community of believers he has around him:
Daniel did not have to deal with his second choice world alone. He was surrounded by a community of Hebrew friends… If we have to live through second choice experiences it helps if we are able go through it with others. It is in the community of others that we are often able to understand the nature of our second choice world; with others we gain perspective.
As Andrew and Rachel point out, this ‘gaining perspective’ is not so much about having friends who can buck you up – the Inside Out ‘Joy’ model of always looking on the bright side, but about having friends who will walk through the valley with you. This was most clearly illustrated for Viv when he suffered a massive heart attack while at a conference in India. The presence of good friends who he could call when he felt unwell saved his life. One had experienced the same symptoms before, knew what they meant, and knew what to do. Not only was he able to get the appropriate help, but he accompanied Viv to the hospital and was able to reassure him, both through his experience and through his committed prayer. Other friends rallied together to buy a plane ticket for Viv’s wife and another good friend so they could travel out to be with him after the operation.
“The Western tendency to live through our problems in independence is a weakness rather than a strength,” Viv Thomas writes. “This team [of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego] was united in its resolve to stand together and live through the second choice world of Babylon.”
When life plants a lemon tree…
Many of us are going through ‘second choice’ situations at the moment. Many are living through long-term second choice worlds. To a certain extent we all are, in that we’re living in the ‘now and not yet’ of the coming Kingdom of God, with all that implies. What have I learned through these three avenues brought to my attention in recent days?
When life plants a lemon tree in the middle of your world: learn to lament; don’t suppress your emotions, but don’t let them rule you, either; and do it before God in community. It may not change our circumstances, but it does transform our ability to deal with them.
This post first appeared on Think Theology.