Chaos Theory: Why The Meaning God Gives Pain Might Do More Harm Than Good

    Yesterday I listened to an episode of the On Being podcast that originally aired last summer featuring professor, researcher, and author Dr. Pauline Boss. It was entitled “The Myth of Closure.”

    Boss is known for developing the theory of “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is loss that has no finality or resolution, one that is not clear-cut. It might look like losing a loved one to dementia--the body is still present but their “self”, as we knew it, is going or gone. Ambiguous loss might also involve a missing person, such as a soldier whose body is never found or was destroyed, or a person who disappears in a natural disaster whose body is never recovered. Because of the “ambiguous” nature of such losses, according to Dr. Boss, the person whose loved one is gone experiences a unique kind of grief, a kind of grief perhaps more difficult to move on from than what one might go through in more definitive circumstances.

    I was intrigued by Dr. Boss’s theory, having not heard it before, but it was something else she said--something somewhat tangential to her main point--that struck me most powerfully and brought me back to the topic of leaving the Christian church. Boss said that people will sometimes get stuck in destructive grieving cycles--say, of perpetual self-blame--when they try too hard to make sense of what is ultimately a senseless event. In other words, according to Dr. Boss, it is perhaps only when a person experiencing loss lets go of the idea that the traumatic event meant something that they are free to move on. Moving on might look like taking charge of the meaning-making (e.g. starting an organization for the parents of missing children if one’s own child was lost and never found) but it cannot be the Sisyphean struggle to suss out any logic in the event itself.

    Here’s where fundamentalist (and even mainstream) Christianity comes in: those of us raised in such a tradition were and are taught that God’s will is in one way or another behind everything that happens in the world--the good and the bad. So, when the bad thing happens, a girl who was raised as I was in an Evangelical environment will search for all the reasons God might have allowed that bad thing to occur. At best this is just silly; I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care that my phone fell in the toilet. At worst--well, we have a version of “love” (assuming one believes that God is all-loving) that involves testing the beloved with terrible trauma and immense pain. On purpose. For some secret reason. 

    This is no good.

    That thought in and of itself--the thought that God was very intentionally allowing me to be hurt even when I’d done nothing wrong--became traumatizing to me as I grew older and more independent and had to start providing myself with the emotional strength needed to make it through the thorny bits of life. It was compounded distress: the loss itself, whatever it happened to be, plus my desperate calculations as to its existential and theological meanings. On the contrary, the relief I found in choosing to detach painful situations from the thought of their supposed ultimate significance was like a valve release. It didn’t mean whatever sucky situation I was in didn’t suck, it just meant the universe had nothing against me and I was free to at least make some good from the unavoidable bad as I saw fit.

    It seems like every day I discover a new way in which my Evangelical upbringing set me up to fail. Certainly it wasn’t all bad--which I’ve pointed out plenty of times before, so I won’t go into detail here--but it still amazes me how many times a week I find myself whispering to no one in particular, “Wait, was that normal?” I don’t know. We don’t know what’s “normal”, what’s healthy, us ex-Evangelical kids. What I do know (now) is that being able to rattle off all the reasons God might be ‘testing’ you with sad circumstances does not in fact make me a helpful person to be around in a time of grief. I don't remember where I learned that lesson, but it wasn't from the church.

    Ultimately, I just wish it could have been more realistic, my social-emotional education. Of course, this is not a wish that can be granted when it comes to Evangelicalism, so in lieu of a magic wand with which to change my past I’ll do what Dr. Boss suggests and let those first couple decades in Jesus Freak land be nothing but coincidental chaos. And I'll ask myself what I can do with the nonsense now. The answer is: exactly this--exposing the secrets, building community, and letting people know that it's never too late to choose a happier and healthier path.