I was feeling so crummy the last time icy weather closed schools across the state. While my son might have been pleased to spend hours on end with mommy—not doing his usual intensive special-ed work—mommy herself was contending with nausea, fatigue, body aches, and a rather dim outlook on life.
Of course, I love my son madly. It’s just hard to replicate the structure and routine he receives at school on my own at home, especially when my reserves are low and I’m struggling to keep my head above water. I confess that I would have been willing to let the iPad completely take over parenting my son that day. If only it could dispense food and protect him from hurting himself (say, by leaning too far over our balcony railing) or from destroying the house (say, by flooding the bathroom). As with many forms of special needs, my son’s autism requires that we be ever vigilant, no exceptions. Most days I get help. That day I had none since our usual caregiver was iced inside her own home.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling sick, tired, and discouraged, my brain becomes especially vulnerable to whacked-out thinking. I start expecting unreasonable things of myself, things that would be challenging even at full strength. That day I decided I should take my son swimming at my mother’s assisted living facility. Even though it’s right around the corner, it’s still quite a project to dress my son (and myself), accompany him in the pool for a good 45 minutes to an hour, then shower and dress us both again after. But he loves paddling around in the water so much that my husband and I try to get to Grandma’s regularly when the opportunity arises.
As if reading my mind, my son donned a pair of shoes and a winter jacket, and stood in the mudroom, looking at me expectantly. He’d been playing all morning inside and clearly wanted to go out. I knew the rest of the day would pass more smoothly if I could manage an outing with him, but my body just wasn’t cooperating. Rather than pausing to really consider my physical and mental state, or actually saying a quick prayer about what to do, I wobbled right up to the edge of the proverbial cliff and asked, “Do you want to go swimming?”
In our household, we do not ask questions lightly. Because of my son’s language deficits, we keep our language simple and our follow-through solid. If my son manages to make a reasonable request, we try to honor it, to encourage further requesting with words in the future. We also try to avoid the meltdowns that sometimes come when promises cannot be kept for reasons that cannot be explained. I shudder to think what would have happened had my son answered with a “yes,” which I fully expected him to do. Instead, he emphatically said his version of “no”!
There is a God. Something I’m prone to forget when I’m, shall we say, grossly imbalanced.
So, by God’s grace, we ended up driving to the nearby dollar store instead—something we could manage much more easily than the pool. Before going in I put cash in one pocket, a reusable bag in the other, and prepared to shop and pay one-handed since my son bolts in public places. Securing him within my grasp, we walked up and down the narrow aisles, looking for something that might amuse. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but my son snaked his hand into a pile of plastic items and pulled out a mini guitar. How he spied it amidst all the $1 offerings, I do not know. Why he immediately went for it, I do know; he loves playing the ukulele, harp, and guitar with his babysitter and music therapist. If it has strings to strum, my son is all smiles. And, more immediately, he was now ready to go home and play with his new toy. Snow day mission accomplished.
Even as we left the dollar store, I could already tell, sick and spent as I was, that God had provided that particular toy at that particular moment as a special mercy to me. Shopping trips can go terribly wrong in our family, and the fact that this one went so right was no accident. The problem was not my perception of the divine provision, but rather my reception of it. The gift of the guitar reached my brain but not my heart. In fact, I admit to thinking, That’s nice, God. But it’s not nearly enough.
Truth is, I was run down by intense, long-term physical and emotional stressors, the kind that seem to have no end in sight. Deep down, I was furious at the relentlessness of it all and at God’s apparent willingness to let so much trouble into my life. For many days I had been too beaten down to know what to do with the struggle and darkness. I had nowhere to put it, and so there it roiled, just beneath the surface, ready to be triggered by any little thing. Even a good little thing, such as being handed a small but significant blessing on a difficult day.
What do we do when God reaches out to us, either through a person or a circumstance, and our hearts respond with anger or cynicism? Self-condemnation only pushes one further down the pit into which one has fallen. Ignoring bitter reactions proves no better, since it’s never a good idea to bury negative feelings, especially those tied to pain. Turning to creature-comforts to numb that rage and pain works only temporarily and inevitably exacts too high a price when the bill comes due.
The only answer I’ve settled upon lately is this: spill it. As in, your guts. Open your mind—and, preferably, your mouth—and let God have it. Through private prayer or conversation with someone who can model divine acceptance, say that darkest, dirtiest thing you are really feeling but have been too scared or sapped to express. Be brutally, savagely honest. As an ancient Hebrew poem puts it: Trust in Him at all times, O people / Pour out your heart before him / God is a refuge for us. (Psalm 62:8).
Maybe the very idea of such engagement terrifies you because it’s never been safe for you to show anger. But what have you got to lose? Any deity worth a speck of worship from us knows what we’re thinking anyway. And, as a wise friend once observed, you’d already be incinerated if such a god wished to strike you down every time you did something offensive. If the psalmist is right, God receives our expressions of rage, of utter exasperation—even hatred—as evidence that we trust him enough to present our realest, truest selves for him to deal with in love. Who knows? Our venting may even count as worship. Whoa.
Might I make another suggestion? If you can, say “thank you” for the gifts of grace you receive, however inadequate they may seem compared to your woes. This expression of gratitude reminds you that you are more than just the sum of your problems. More than just a pig squealing in the slaughterhouse. You are a human being bearing a divine imprint. You are worth engaging no matter what you are going through and how you are going through it.
Ease the internal pressure by offloading some anger safely and authentically. The god of dollar store guitars knows what to do with it. Let me know how it goes. And I’ll keep you posted. I haven’t been incinerated yet!