This last week we’ve seen two examples of parents facing something that no good parent can even dream of facing. I read about the child falling into the gorilla enclosure, and the toddler being taken by the alligator, and something in me recoils. I’m a fixer–“plan for the ‘what-if’s,” I’ve taught my son. I believe that. I believe in being careful, in planning ahead, and yes, even in padding the corners of the world for our children, at least until they’re steady on their feet and have a decent sense of self-preservation. I believe in that so deeply that many considered me over-careful–and yet never for one second have I regretted the pains I took. Even with all that, though, accidents happened. I felt awful, and worked all the harder to prevent the next one–and that there would be a next one I had little doubt.
The thing about accidents is that they come at us from random directions. By their very nature, they are accidental–things that happen that we never dreamed might. I believe in being careful. I also understand that accidents happen to even the best of us. And that’s why what I’ve seen unfolding in the comments sections of the stories covering these two tragedies has sickened me. Here are these parents who have just experienced something for which even I, with my passion for fixing things, can’t find a next step. What would I have done if my child had slipped away for a moment–only a moment–and devastation occurred? I don’t know. I can’t even imagine my next step. When I contemplate losing my child I realize that when his life stops, mine does, too. There is no next meal, next act, next step. There is only life with him in it, and then nothing.
Two sets of parents are struggling to find their way through something so terrifying in one case, awful in the other, that my mind shuts down at the very idea–and yet what I see in the comments section is all too often not supportive, empathetic comments, or even comments seeking to understand how such events might serve as teachable moments for the rest of us–hold on tighter, stay out of all water except in swimming pools while in alligator habitat–but blaming and shaming.
Why would we do this? Why would we figuratively “hit these parents while they’re down?” I think that some of the virulence can be attributed to the form of religion many of the “perfect parents” who seem to be most vocal practice.
While there are many wonderful Christians, it’s hard to deny that Christianity has an ugly secret at its heart–it’s a religion custom-made for those who can’t stand the vagaries of life. It offers something it can’t deliver–the guarantee that God will watch over those whose worship habits are up to snuff, that good people will be rewarded with blessings, that tithe-payers will be rewarded with the treasures of heaven to such a degree their bank accounts can’t hold it all. This promise is called the “Wisdom Theory,”because it’s a formula found all through the Psalms and the “Wisdom” books–“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” for example. That Bible writers expected this to be the case is abundantly clear–story after story recounts instances of good people being rewarded and bad people punished. David often expresses anguish at the fact that even though he is a “righteous” man, his life all too often is in danger. “Why do the evil prosper?” he asks. Why indeed. And yet the Wisdom Theory still shapes the beliefs of millions. It’s often brought out at times like this to “explain” that the fact that this awful thing happened is “proof” that the parents failed God in some way.
The Wisdom Theory promises something it has never delivered–assurance that we can, by our own actions, keep ourselves and those we love safe. You hear it all the time: She was raped because she dressed provocatively, or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; his kids went to jail because he left his wife; single mothers bring their hardships on themselves; poor people lost their homes in the financial crash because they lived beyond their means; the abused wife suffers because she has pushed her husband too far, spoken out of turn, burned the dinner. For those who believe in the Wisdom Theory, there can be no accidents. Every awful experience is earned by some failure in those going through it. They deserved it. Such a thing could never happen to us. We’re good people.
Alternatively, the “comforters” will assure each other (and the parents) that this devastation must be some part of God’s plan–that their child might have turned out to be a monster, so “God took him early.” The Wisdom Theory provides an illusion of control, the false assurance that we actually have control over not just our own behavior but the behavior of every one and every thing around us–that if we just love God well enough, and follow the rules slavishly enough, we can be guaranteed protection against all misfortune.
The thing that makes it so seductive is that to some degree we do shape our fates. We do need to be responsible for our own safety. But no matter how responsible we may be, we are all at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. None of us are all-knowing or all-seeing. Accidents happen. Accidents happen because we don’t have total control. They happen because we live in a world of intersecting chains of causes and effects, and sometimes those intersections can be dangerous, terrifying, and terrible places.
Here is the truth. The Wisdom Theory isn’t about life. It’s about power–about using emotional blackmail to coerce people into sometimes self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. It’s about coercing poor people to give money to religious institutions bloated with wealth–institutions who give lip service to “helping the poor” even while they exploit them. It’s about keeping slaves, wives, children, and the poor in their places, supporting the status quo, following the rules, not rocking the boat. The Wisdom Theory keeps the king safe on his throne, and the beggar on the street starving.
It’s time we relegated the Wisdom Theory to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and follow instead another teaching found in Christianity–“Bear one another’s burdens.” It’s time to recognize that no matter our best efforts, we are all subject to the whims of fortune far more often that we would like to be. It means that rather than seeking to ferret out the grievous sin that made the loss of a child a suitable punishment, and then adding our own punishment to that, we instead recognize our common humanity, accept that those of us who have not faced such a loss are perhaps not so much better parents as just luckier, and then doing whatever we can to not ease the pain we see–perhaps no one can do that–but to not make it worse: to sit with the sufferers, hold them up, bring them food, love them and their children, do their laundry, vacuum and dust their houses, and perhaps, just perhaps, help them survive long enough to find their own way out of a very dark place.