“These things happen…”

A seminary friend of mine went through a divorce while she was a mom of young children, pastoring a small, rural congregation made up of mostly of older adults. She was worried about how her parishioners would take the news. Would they still trust her leadership? Should she offer to resign?

There was no need to worry: her congregation members responded with compassion and support. One Sunday morning, an older woman touched my friend on her arm and said quietly, “These things happen.”

Disappointingly, it was some people my friend’s age who were ugly about the whole situation. Peers in the community, people from a local Bible study and even fellow clergy responded with judgment and anger.

My hunch is that the older people in her congregation had more experience with literal and figurative stumbling and falling.

I don’t know if it is happening more or if I’m just hearing about it more from my friends and family, but I know multiple people over the age of sixty who have fallen and gotten hurt in the past few weeks. It’s to the point that I’ve been instructing my parents to “Stay upright!”

I’ve realized, though, that this isn’t particularly helpful. It’s kind of like telling a person with depression to “be happier” or a student with learning disabilities to “do better in school.” I’m certain that any of these people who have fallen would stay upright if they could have.

Instead, I’m wondering if we need to teach people how to fall better; a “it will happen, so here’s how to do the least amount of damage” kind of approach. I did some research and learned that there is actually a ton of information about falling safely. For example, you should bend your knees and just give into the fall, protect your head, land on the meat (muscle is better than bone at breaking a fall) and then roll once you are on the ground. I doubt most people can remember all of these pointers on their way down, but at least they know that others have struggled in the same way. 

Because people recover from falls and divorces and all kinds of hard things that knock the wind out of them. 

What breaks people, I believe, is feeling alone—like they are the only ones who are struggling, like they are in this situation because of something they’ve done wrong.

Our culture loves success stories, to the point that we don’t even want to acknowledge when things go wrong. Everyone loves a winner. What if we adopted the mindset instead that people often lose their balance, that good things fall apart, that sometimes these things just happen? 

I know from personal experience that sharing when I’m hurting is the best way forward. If I’m in pain, I won’t be able to outrun it forever, so I might as well save us all some time and deal with it. I can’t think of a single time when me saying, “I really shouldn’t feel this way” has helped. What has helped is people responding to my heartache with “Me, too” or “I wish I could take this away from you” or “I’ve been in a similar situation and here’s what helped.” 

 Recovery groups for people struggling with addiction are actually really good at this. They recognize that it will be someone’s turn to relapse on any given day. This is a heartbreaking reality, but they still show up for each other because they’ve recently been the one struggling or they are broken now or they just might be down the line. No one wants to relapse or divorce or fall down—it’s not what we would choose for ourselves or anyone we love. But if it’s going to happen, let’s remind one another that we are never alone.

There’s real strength in saying, “Well, here we are. How do we get back up? What’s our new plan?” 

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