Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Things People Say

Sooner or later, when grief is under discussion, the subject of the things people say to the grieving is bound to come up. Bringing it up here feels a bit like opening a can of worms—not just because of what other people (often well-meaning people, I might add) have said about the three climbers, but because, even as I write, insensitive comments I have made flash through my mind. At one time or another, probably all of us have said something with the best intentions that had precisely the opposite effect from what we intended.

I'm also mindful of family members and don't want to invite a discussion that might cause them any more distress. Still this is an important part of grieving that needs to be raised so we can all learn better ways of caring for those among us who are hurting.

One of the comments we've heard most frequently both during and after the tragedy on Mt. Hood is the fact that the three climbers chose to take serious risks, and so “Aren't they responsible for their own trouble?” Everything from Rosie O'Donnell and Bill O'Reilly harshly criticizing the fact that taxpayers were footing the bill for rescuing climbers (an unfounded charge according to SAR volunteers) to close friends wondering out loud whether, along with processing bewilderment over God's mysterious ways, we should also be contemplating the kinds of choices people make that result in tragedies like this.

While I admit these comments make me wince, there’s no denying that Kelly, Brian, and Nikko (experienced and meticulous as they were) were involved by choice in a dangerous and potentially deadly sport. Every member of their families feared the terrible phone call that finally came in December telling us they were in trouble on a mountain. So yes, our guys knowingly took risks and loved what they were doing. And despite our fears, we were proud of their achievements. Yet, although I certainly wouldn't encourage anyone to take unnecessary risks, at the same time, I wonder what life would be like on this planet if none of us ever took risks or pressed the limits of our physical abilities.

But to be honest, knowing the risks they took doesn’t help me make sense of what happened to them. Especially since, even at lower levels, the rest of us are taking risks and sometimes making disastrous choices. The simple fact is that whether we realize it or not we’re all counting on God’s mercy and grace to see us safely through the day. Yet even for those of us who remain sensibly at the foot of the mountain, tragedies still happen.

I’m in the middle of a book manuscript based on the Old Testament Book of Ruth—a story that opens with a sequence of tragic events. Some Bible interpreters have backtracked Naomi’s story to point out the places where her family strayed from the right path and onto the path that led to tragedy. Surprisingly neither the narrator nor Naomi assume that point of view. Questions raised in the narrative and openly voiced by Naomi, don’t center around her behavior, her husband’s or their sons'. They center on God.

Even in Jesus’ day, when a tower fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus carefully explained that those who perished were no more deserving of such a fate than anyone else and redirected His followers' attention away from evaluating those who perished to focus on the God who holds us all in His hands.

No matter what happens, we can't confine God to a formula. His ways are far more complex than that. Sometimes the roof caves in on people like Job who are doing all the right things. Sometimes blessings rain down on a rogue. And sometimes there’s a strong relationship between human actions and the eventual outcome. There’s no telling which way things will go. Which casts us all back on God’s mercy and leaves us to live in the realm of faith, not formulas.

Besides, when your loved one is in trouble—no matter how they got there—your only hope is that God will have mercy, and you pray desperately for a rescue. Sometimes He rescues, as He did for three climbers lost on Mt. Hood a week ago. They walked off the mountain in good shape. Sometimes He doesn’t, as with Kelly, Brian, and Nikko.

And when He doesn’t, you tend to set aside the history that led up to the outcome. You simply end up wrestling with God. Which seems to be what He intends all along.



Linda W. said...

Your excellent thoughts deserve a more considered response, but what I have time for now is just a quick one. First, my own: People who complain about the risks these (and other) climbers chose to face -- with their knowledge, preparation, and ability -- should take a good look at their own risky behaviors, beginning with that last automobile ride they took so unthinkingly.

Second, here's part of an exchange from a friend's blog:

"There is a lot I don’t understand. What exactly does it mean to “mourn as if you were not mourning”? What does “don’t worry, for the Lord knows you need these things” mean? One thing is for sure, it doesn’t mean you will never go hungry. For reasons I don’t understand God has blessed me beyond (my feeble) belief and keeps blessing me in so many big and small ways. I don’t understand what I’ve “done” to “deserve” this other than I don’t deserve it at all. Yet I will rejoice and thank my God for everything he does and IS. I know there will be a season where I don’t find myself to be blessed, and maybe that’s the meaning of “be happy as if you were not”: simply realizing in our rejoicing that our circumstances are temporary and beyond our control. I rest in the knowledge that God has the very best, most amazing plan for me, even though (because?) it will include times of struggle and trial."

"What you said about circumstances: I see that in the lives of all the great men and women of faith through the centuries -- the complete and utter disconnect between their circumstances and their faith. It's easy to feel spiritual when there's ice in your icemaker and gas in the SUV."

"I struggle to express my faith to unbelievers. It's hard to explain that a 'complete and utter disconnect between circumstances and faith' is something from a good god. No matter what words I use to express it, it can appear empty to those from without. I guess that's good because it makes me pray, pray, pray!"

Helen Qiu said...

Dear Carolyn,

Thank you for your courage to bring up a very excellent topic.

Normatively speaking, our physical and leisure activities should center on what God calls us to do. For example, I know of a couple who were called to the mission field at the age of 50+. They realized that their physical health were not supportive to their mission. Instead of using physical health as a reason to negotiate with God for a different arrangement, they decided to take up swimming exercises every day. For over a year, this older couple swimmed every day in order to train their body to serve the Lord at the places where God needed them the most. Then they went on to take up their posts.

Therefore, I believe what Paul said, "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things."


San said...

This post reminded me of Eccl. 10:8-9: "Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them."

Four of the seven members of my family of origin have climbed Mt. Hood, three of whom were teens at the time. Nobody criticized them for taking risks, nor did anybody criticize my father for taking them up there. In fact, people thought he was a cool dad for giving his kids such great experiences.

When I was really young, I heard Jim Whittaker speak not long after he scaled Everest, and everyone present considered him a hero. I wonder what they would've said if something had gone wrong. It's not hard to guess.

I'm so sorry for your loss and that Job's friends didn't shut up long enough to hear the wisdom of the mourning. You all are in my thoughts and your grief is not forgotten.