Many parents of special needs children are told that God won’t give them more than they can handle. It is one of those common phrases that parents hear with some regularity. I personally believe that, as a rule, it is a sentiment that comforts the person offering the advice more than the person receiving the advice. It allows for others to retain faith in situations that might challenge their faith. If the special needs parenting blogs are to believed many parents raising complex kids find the comment troubling, and at times even offensive. But that isn’t always the case and it is important to remember that this journey of extreme parenting can have as many different variations as there are parents.
In the very early days of parenting Matthew I actually remember finding some comfort in the idea that God would never give me more than I could handle. The idea that I was never going to be tasked with too much was assuring. The idea that God had very carefully chosen me for this job of parenting Matthew because I was somehow special and unique was a powerful thought. In the first year or so of his life I clung to that idea.
But then life happened. And, boy, did it happen. There seemed to be years where I was constantly dealing with this rapidly escalating journey of complex care. I was caught up in a juggling act where outsiders kept throwing balls at me that I somehow had to keep up in the air. Outsiders would watch the juggling act and comfort themselves with the knowledge that I could do it all, because, you know, God. I would juggle harder and faster, but I knew it was just a matter of time until everything came crashing down on my head. At the time God seemed remarkably absent. No one was placing limits on that juggling act and no one was helping me with the routine. It was so much more than I could handle and if God was part of the story then I didn’t want a whole lot to do with God. My kid was suffering. I was suffering. The whole thing sucked and God, to me, was nowhere to be found.
As someone who embraced the Christian tradition I left church. I walked away from God. Well, actually, I believed She had walked away from me. Not only did I abandon my faith, but I became angry. I was angry about life, about my situation, and boy, was I pissed off at God. Really, really angry. As an aside, God can handle extreme anger, just read the Laments. In hindsight it tells me that I didn’t totally abandon my faith because you can’t be angry at something you don’t believe in.
Part of my particular journey back to faith, granted a different type of Christian faith but faith nonetheless, included studying theology at a university. I am a geek by nature, what can I say. But it worked. It allowed me to unpack God and faith and find different pathways back to spirituality and God that made sense in my particular context. Others might choose a different journey. In my view they’re all good as long as we’re respectful of each other’s particular story.
But now back to what we can handle. By this point in my journey I had firmly rejected the notion that God would never give us more than we could handle. And then, as part of my MA in theology, I did a study exploring the spiritual journeys of parents like me. I met many parents who shared my particular philosophy – that God wasn’t part of this handling it all thing. And I also met parents who believed, with every fibre of their being, that God was in this journey and would never ask for more than they were capable. I had to start incorporating this radical new idea into not only my study results, but my own understanding of God and faith. Several parents in the study were absolutely convinced that God would never give them more than they could handle. That even when the journey was brutally hard God was there and would assist in some way. God was always with them and this idea brought amazing comfort. It was the only thing that allowed them to continue. For these parents the statement that I found untrue, and that some parents found offensive and angering, was the source of enduring comfort.
So in the end I would suggest that it is very helpful to know another’s theology and faith before you comment on their journey. And even then be careful because one’s belief and faith can be radically revised during crises.
During difficult moments it is better to offer words that bring comfort to the one suffering rather than to support your own particular theology or ideology – which may mean you don’t say a whole lot, but rather listen. Better yet, rather than interpreting their journey for them, ask them to tell you what they believe and what ideas bring them comfort. Be secure enough in your faith or thinking that you can accept differing beliefs about God or the journey. There has been a strong backlash in some special needs and faith communities against some of these commonly held beliefs and sayings. I will admit to being one who has actively pushed back against these ideas on a regular basis because the ideas didn’t work for me. But yet, several people have stopped me in my tracks and reminded me that some of these beliefs, some of these theodicies that protect God amid suffering, work for some people. Beliefs that might make me want to scream are a source of enduring solace for others. We are all different.
So does God give us more than we can handle? Isn’t that one of the great mysteries of life! Let extreme caregivers let you know what they think on the subject. I bet there will be lots of interesting answers and I love a great theological conversation.