There’s an episode of the show Family Guy where Stewie, the talking baby, starts drinking so Brian, the family’s talking dog, decides to break him of the bad habit. His plan is to get Stewie so drunk and hungover that he never wants to drink again. So the two head to the local dive bar, The Bearded Oyster. They get soused and at one point as they are about to pound another drink, they are casting about for something to drink to. Stewie says, “Oh – I know, I know . . . to the black man. Thanks for taking it all in stride.”
My husband and I just laughed and laughed at that. Because it’s so true. Our society has basically expected that no matter how poorly treated, oppressed, disenfranchised or unjustly dealt with a black man is, he’s not allowed to be angry or bitter or just plain jacked up in the head. He’s just got to take it all in stride. No stumbling, no falling, no excuses, no empathy, no mercy.
The thing is that this “take it all in stride” ethos isn’t limited to black men. It’s a cultural attitude which affects a lot of us. Whatever happens to us, whatever baggage we got burdened with or barriers we faced or the trauma we’ve experienced, none of that is supposed to matter. You’re just supposed to find a way around or through like a trooper. Get a therapist if you need one, but hurry up and get over it. No use crying over spilled milk. Forgive and move on. Take responsibility for your own life. I’ve heard it and I’ve expected it of myself and you probably have to.
For the most part, it’s not bad advice. I mean you can’t change the past, might as well make the best of it and move forward the best you can, right? The problem is that this generally well meaning advice becomes a sort of moral bludgeoning tool. We stumble and beat ourselves up for it without allowing for the fact that some a-hole had tripped us while another tried to tackle us from behind.
I recently had someone I know say to me, “you’ve chosen such a hard road to walk” and part of me wanted to hunt them down and stab ’em in the eye with a sharp stick. Because the reality is that despite my best efforts, I never did get the chance to walk down the road I had meant to take. Like most people, there were a lot of things that happened that I didn’t create or chose which pushed me down the road I took. And no one stepped forward to help make sure I was OK or that I landed on my feet. Except my husband, but he was even more screwed up than me and did his own fair share of tripping me up. I think I did a good job – a freaking fantastic job, really – of making the best of it. But because I’d deeply absorbed the “take it all in stride, never look back, don’t make excuses” ethos, until pretty recently, I couldn’t allow myself enough mercy to actually say, “I got pushed. I got tripped. My way was blocked and no one would help me out.” It was all my responsibility and I rendered harsh judgment on myself for everything that went wrong or I wished was different. And I allowed others to do the same.
But the reality is that we’re not invincible. Sometimes things happen that are just too major, too hurtful and too big for any human being to just take it all in stride. Sometimes we can’t find a way around. Sometimes we do stutter step. And sometimes we’re just all jacked up in the head. It happens. It happens to the best of us. And you know what? We’re not supposed to have to be invincible. When life is busy tripping and shoving us, we’re gonna stumble. We might even fall. I’m here to tell you tonight that no matter how good or strong or positive you are, life can really fuck you up.
Of course, when you’re all messed up in the head, you can end up doing really dumb things. And if you’re not really careful, you can hurt a lot of other people along the way. If you can keep your head about you and power through, you can minimize the damage, but often you’ll still find yourself on a less than ideal path with fewer options than you’d otherwise have. But the thing is, whatever gets screwed up and whoever you hurt, you’re going to have to live with all of that no matter what. It doesn’t really do anyone any good to deny that you couldn’t just take it all in stride and really, you shouldn’t have had to.
There’s a rather infamous verse in Romans 8 which says, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God”. It often gets misused as a platitude meant to say that we shouldn’t worry about the bad things that happen because God’s just using it on the way to make something better. Which, frankly, just feeds into our “chin up, take it in stride, don’t let it trip you up” ethos which keeps a lot of us living under a spirit of judgment and guilt. Ages ago I read a book which said it’s not like God is making a cake and whatever craptastic thing that happens is one of the ingredients. Rather, it’s more like he’s making a stained glass window where the dark can be used as an element in the design. You can make a stained glass window without much dark in it. But there are also beautiful windows made mosaic style with a bit of dark material around every piece.
Which is why I think it’s OK to own and make peace with the fact that sometimes we aren’t OK. Sometimes life makes us stumble and fall and turns our lives into something we never meant for them to be. I don’t think that God necessarily intends us to have to deal with such hard, difficult lives. But if we do, and we let him, he can still make it into something beautiful. Even if we are all jacked up in the head along the way.