How NOT To Help Someone Who Is Hurting (comic strips included!)


We all have times like this, don’t we? And they are never easy. I happen to have a strong tendency (whether owing to my genes, my God-given personality and inclination, or who knows what) toward anxiety, much, MUCH more of it than is helpful and much more than I care to admit. Because it can be really hard to admit that you are struggling with something like anxiety.

Unfortunately, sometimes when you gather your courage and go ahead and tell someone how you’re feeling, it ends up going something like this:Fix1

And then, some of this:

Fix2And then, this:


Now, along with the late (and lamented) David Rakoff, I do really believe that:

“people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?”

But in his very last piece on a recent ‘This American Life’ episode, Rakoff, his voice raspy from the lung tumors that were consuming his insides, he mentioned being at a dinner party at which people were discussing what sorts of self-improving things they’d like to do…as if giving up sugar or exercising more or doing more reading would really, truly, change their lives for the better. When it came to David’s turn to contribute, there was nothing to say. It was clear by then that all the ‘fixes’ in the world weren’t going to do a thing for him. He was dead within a matter of weeks.

We are in a cultural moment that is obsessed with FIXING. With magic diet and lifestyle changes that promise, when implemented, to make us a whole new, better person.

I understand that. I think it’s actually a deeply theological longing. But it’s not so simple as we might imagine. We would like to eliminate suffering, which is possible some of the time and completely impossible much of the time. Death forces us to face that head on.

It’s amazing how little Jesus preached at people who were hurting, reserving his harshest and most preachy and advice-giving words for those who were pretty sure they had this whole God thing entirely figured out. And it’s equally amazing how he chose simply to be with–and EAT WITH–people who were struggling with all kinds of problems, and, yes, to use that unpopular word, sins.

I just can’t see Jesus doing what the people in the above strips are doing. Instead, I could imagine a scenario like this:


You’ll also want to check out:

another comic strip post on what anxiety feels like

my friend Ellen’s post on being ‘unfixable’ in a world obsessed with fixing

my friend Laura’s post on being anxious (and Christian)

Don’t Criticize Notorious Leader Donald Miller


A few weeks ago, Donald Miller (who’s a New York Times bestselling author and a popular blogger) wrote a post  about how, as an introvert, he must order his life so that he can get his writing done. One of the things he does is “make sure [he has] until 5 each day completely free to write,” which is, of course, historically and globally, an exceptional privilege; one that almost no one can replicate. True, Donald did not present his routine as prescriptive (as the first cartoon cell above suggests) but the title, “How to Avoid a People Hangover,” does give that impression.

So last week, my friend Ellen Painter Dollar wrote a post about how, as an introvert AND a mom, she (and other writer-mom-friends, of which I am one) managed to make time for writing amid our busy lives. Many of us who write have nothing close to the luxury of Miller’s “until 5 each day completely free to write,” and Ellen’s post resonated with those of us (which is most of us) who write in the snatches of time we can get between our ‘real’ jobs and our family obligations. Her post was hardly any sort of harsh criticism. Rather, it stated what could be understood as fairly obvious to anyone reading Donald’s original post: most people can’t do this.


Donald Miller replied on Twitter, first saying “love this!” and then, some hours later, sent this:

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Then Donald Miller wrote another post in which he talked about how much he HATES (caps lock HATES) critics, but that, * sigh, * since he talks about Jesus and is a well-known leader, criticism is going to happen, and even though he’s still really mad, he’s going to be Jesus-y about it and “turn the other cheek.”

Strip3And, of course, most of the comments and tweets from his fans are of the affirming variety, praising Miller for his Christ-like behavior in response to the “morons” and “jerks” who disagree with him. Meanwhile, when Ellen commented to remark that it seems the post is directed at her (in part to remind Miller’s readers that there might be an actual human being behind the “moron” and “jerk” labels), saying (again) she’s sorry Donald felt hurt and would welcome a private conversation with Donald, she got a lot of comments like “why are you so egotistical, Ellen? It’s not all about you, you know. Plus, why are you even criticizing Notorious Leader Donald Miller? And in the wrong way?”

Who, exactly, is being egotistical here: the one talking about how he HATES critics and wants to smash their heads into lockers (except he would never do that, because he was sweet and shy and ate donuts in junior high, he says) while demurring that the only reason anyone could be criticizing him is that he’s so famous, and Jesus-y, and a leader…

…or the person who had some criticisms of something the leader wrote and who was (understandably) a little bothered by the frankly mean rhetoric he directed at her just a few days ago, and whose outline of the events (numbered 1, 2, 3 & so on) exactly parallel their exchange last week?


What I have to say about this is really very simple: when a person publicly says something like, “I’m going to be like Jesus even though I’m really mad and would like to smash things and/or people, but clearly they are just mad at me because I talk about Jesus and I’m famous,” that is not ‘daring,’ ‘honest,’ ‘raw,’ or anything else. It is humble-bragging of the very worst kind, the kind that brings Jesus along to co-sign one’s own bullsh*t, and that is sly blasphemy.

Receiving criticism is hard. Receiving it WELL is harder. But there are (at least) two ways to invoke Jesus in these situations that are, from my (limited and flawed) point of view, hideously wrong:

1. Invoking Jesus to say something like “I pretty much hate you but I love Jesus more than I hate you.”

(translation: I hate you AND I’m going to brag about how much more spiritual I am than you.)

2. Invoking Jesus to say something like “clearly it’s because I’m so famous and influential and Jesus-y that I’m even getting criticism.”

(translation: I am awesome, so why should I even listen to critics, who clearly are always wrong?)

And no fair putting Jesus in the “nice” category so that speaking up or speaking out about these kinds of things is categorically un-Jesus-y because Jesus is just ‘nice.’ Because that is just not true, and if I may continue being frank, it is just as not true for women as it is for men, although we women are, in my (limited) experience, more likely to be called names or accused of ‘bad motives’ for telling the truth as we see it.

“A plain fact spoken by a woman’s tongue is not infrequently perceived as a cutting blade directed at a man’s genitals.” (Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born)

(Donald’s original post, Ellen’s response, Donald’s post on hating critics.)

On Faking It, Pharmaceuticals, and Whistleblowing

I’ve been feeling crappy for a while.

Can I blame my awful, terrible allergies on my parents? Because I have always had awful, terrible allergies, and, yes, I have tried everything you’re going to suggest, from allergy shots to Allegra to local honey to non-dairy to acupressure to neti pots, to no avail. (Maybe it’s unfixable, and I just have to cope.) And cope I do, which is why I often have trouble distinguishing between the sort of crappy feeling that one dismisses as “allergies” and continues to slog through and the kind of crappy feeling that justifies, nay, necessitates lying in bed.

Add to that the fact that I generally assume I’m being a hysterical, hypochondriac faker, and you can see how it is that even as I held my newborn Graeme in my hands I had this sort of “no waaaay!” look on my face, like, “WOW! I wasn’t faking with all that shouting and grunting; I really was experiencing labor!”

I’m not even going to ask if I can blame this on my parents, because my mother already knows that I blame her ENTIRELY, and yet, do not love her any less for it. If anything, I love her more. If you can’t love the person who, at the age of 10, so convincingly faked an attack of appendicitis such that she persuaded a team of New York City surgeons to remove her perfectly good appendix, thus making it seem that nearly anything could be faked, and quite persuasively, too, really, who can you love?

So, anyway, a few days ago, it became clear that the unbearable pressure in my head and constant nausea was in fact a sinus infection, and that it had gone on long enough. I will allow as how I am one of those people who does, in fact, try things like swallowing whole cloves of garlic before running to the doctor, but when things get to the point of CANNOT LIFT HEAD OFF PILLOW WITHOUT WANTING TO PUKE, I’m like, hand me the ciprofloxacin, STAT.

{An aside, but please read it or the end of the post won’t make sense: as someone who does support the notion that women and families should have the choices to birth as ‘normally’ as possible, if that is their wish, I do NOT check all the boxes that homebirthy women often check off–anti-vaccine, anti-antibiotics–for the simple reason that I read a lot of history, often about disease. Sulfa, penicillin and vaccines are on our side in the Big Picture. It does not follow that every woman giving birth should have an enema, a shave, a disinfecting wash, and a constant drip of antibiotics into her veins, but it doesn’t mean that everything that modern medicine has wrought is bent on destroying your Birth Goddess moment. In fact, if you’re in a developed country, chances are you have the luxurious possibility of luxuriating in your ‘birth experience’ BECAUSE of the lovely, effective medications that would LOVE the chance to save your life should some Streptococcus or Mycoplasma have the audacity to invade your newly delivered nether bits, and because of the scientific progress that helped people understand why they oughtta wash their hands after dissecting cadavers before dealing wish those bits in a hospital context.}

I’m feeling much, much better now (thanks to above-mentioned ciprofloxacin) and ready to arise from my bed without barfing. Clearly, I need therapy that’s not pharmaceutical to figure out why I always just assume I’m faking it, but whatever.

As I was in the midst of this, one of my writing colleagues alerted me to this post (Peggy Orenstein on the sexualization of Candy Land on The Atlantic) in a way that suggested either excitement or distress. On reading it, at first I was like, “oh, how nice, some of my ideas and images made it onto The Atlantic!” And then I noticed that my name wasn’t there, nor any link to my blog (this has since been addressed.) And then, because I’m me, I wondered if I was FAKING, making it all up; if, in fact, this was an incredible coincidence and I had somehow been inspired by Peggy Orenstein without having ever read a word of hers or heard her speak and so on.

So I made a chart. I talked to this friend and this wise colleague and some other friends, and, of course, my resident scholar. 

Am I just being crazy? I asked everyone.

I will leave the curious to explore Jana’s post and Ellen’s post as they choose, and I have but little else to say on the matter except that in the course of discussing this with others, I’ve discovered that (sometimes unintentional) borrowing and bold-faced plagiarism happens WAY more often than many of us suspect.

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I’ve also discovered that it is a thankless job to point out such things (which is why I am profoundly thankful to Ellen and Jana) and, while one or more of us involved have been accused of trying to “self-promote,” the MORE LIKELY SCENARIO is that when people “blow the whistle,” so to speak, others will view them as–well, as ethical hypochondriacs–as people who are attempting to con surgeons into removing perfectly good organs; people who want to turn hay-fever into influenza; to take antibiotics for their allergies.

Look, I’m under no illusions that Jana and Ellen are Woodward and Bernstein, or that this little incident matters much at all in the HUGE scheme of things, except that it does, and here’s why: because if telling the whole truth matters in Big Things, it matters in little things. If it matters on the front pages of the New York Times it matters on little tiny blogs like this one. Women dying by the thousands and millions from puerperal fever wasn’t God’s punishment for immorality, as people suspected. It wasn’t from a Big Thing. It was from the tiny streptococcal spooks that people didn’t even know they should care about. And yes, the discovery of antibiotics helped, but just WASHING HANDS did, too.

And so I’m feeling less and less crappy, thanks not only to the cipro, but to those who risked being called ethical hypochondriacs, risked contaminating their hands enough to raise some questions as to whether the invisible spooks–the bacterium–of untruth had tainted my work, and to insist that those who write keep their hands clean of unintentional borrowing.

It’s not the kind of thing that earns a Nobel or any other kind of prize, but, then, neither was the hospital handwashing station, or the bar of soap.

Addendum: This is as good a place as any to say that both Ellen’s book, No Easy Choice, and Jana’s most recent book, Flunking Sainthood, deserve a place on your Amazon or indie bookstore wishlist, or, at the very least, on your library’s loan request system. I’ve written about both before on this blog (Ellen’s here; Jana’s here) but as usual I have more to say:

  • Ellen’s book is absolutely a must read for people of faith dealing with infertility, the possibility of using techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and genetic screening. It is a meticulous exploration of bioethics that’s written in a way that everyone can understand AND that shares her own story of living with a genetically caused disability and fearing passing on that disability to her children. As a meditation on human limitations and disabilities, it’s great. As a book on the questions facing those with infertility and other issues, it’s great. Essential, really. So, buy Ellen’s book.
  • Jana’s book is laugh-out-loud funny in that vulnerable yet serious way of Anne Lamott, with the observational humor of a David Rakoff or a David Sedaris. But it is also a fantastic, entertaining look at many of the spiritual disciplines that people of faith (particularly Judeo-Christian faith) have followed for millenia, and all the more engaging because Jana actually did these disciplines, a different one each month, with mixed success. And if you should come across the fact that Jana is Mormon as you search for this book online, DO NOT TELL ME OR EVEN THINK that if you are evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Catholic, or some kinda Reformed or Baptist Christian, that she has nothing to say to you. Her book is BIG TENT in the best sort of way, which is to say, it’s very much about seeing spiritual disciplines as a way to live like Jesus. It’s fabulous. So, buy Jana’s book.

It’s OK to Call Evil ‘Evil.’

I highly recommend that you read my friend Ellen Painter Dollar’s recent post on disability and goodness.

It’s called”Do I Hate My Life? No. But I Do Hate My Disability.”

In the post, Ellen dismantles some of the cultural (and, specifically, Christian-cultural) myths about suffering generally and disabilities specifically.

Sometimes I feel troubled by the way certain theologies–including ones I once held–try to insist that ‘whatever happens’ is good and God-intended and meant to be received with gratitude. This world is full of evil and brokenness, and I think God desires that we struggle against those things as we participate in God’s efforts to make all things new. Death is a bad thing. (See my CT post on why a funeral is not the time to rejoice.)

Ellen writes:

OI [the genetic disorder Ellen and I share] is an example of the world’s brokenness. I have come to believe that illness, disability, and disease are neither fundamentally good things disguised as bad (thus not the intentional work of a loving God who works in mysterious ways) nor value-neutral manifestations of human diversity. Illness, disability, and disease are, quite simply, the result of life in a world that does not work as God intended.


I believe it’s permissible for me to hate OI with that perfect hatred for the things of this world that are broken, fallen, not of God. God designed bones to shore us up and protect our tender bodies from all that would assault them. Bones are not supposed to crack under the weight of a laptop computer. They are not supposed to snap when a little girl is simply dancing in her living room. A routine fall from a scooter should not land a child in the emergency room with multiple fractures. Forty-something-year-old knees should not be completely stripped of their cartilage. No matter how much good (wisdom, love, understanding, compassion) comes out of living with this capricious disorder, the disorder itself is not good.

Read the rest here.

We Who Give Life, Give Pain

I have a friend!

Her name is Ellen, and we had so much fun hanging out (in person! with her!) last week that I forgot to get a picture of us together, or to ask her to sign my copy of her book. Oops.

Yes, Ellen has written a book–No Easy Choice.

If you are a person of Christian faith–or simply a person open to the possibility of faith–and you have ever wondered about the ethical questions surrounding any of the following–

  • parenthood as a calling
  • the meaning of suffering
  • adoption
  • infertility
  • disabilities
  • PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis)
  • IVF (in vitro fertilization)
  • more!

–then this book is for you. It is a beautifully written, comprehensive, and thoughtful contribution to a discussion that is all too frequently muddled with generalizations, oversimplifications, and fallacious arguments.

There is so much that I want to say about this book. But before I can say it, I have to tell you something about me, and that’s this:

I, and my two sons, have the same genetic disorder than Ellen and her eldest daughter have.
I inherited it from my mom, who inherited it from her father, who inherited it from his mother, and, before that, we don’t know. It’s an autosomal domininant disorder, which means that an affected person (male OR female) has a 50% of passing on the disorder to each child he or she may have.

The disorder can vary very much in how it affects individuals. I broke only very few bones as a child (maybe because I was a lazy bookworm!?), my mom broke about a dozen bones as a child; Ellen broke dozens. Apart from back pain (from my scoliosis) and odd aches and pains, my OI doesn’t affect me much. It’s something I can easily forget about, in fact. It affected me more as a child, when I could participate in most “normal” activity but would experience pain (& shame) at my slowness, weakness, and lack of coordination.

But that was about the extent of OI’s way with me. I’m very, very lucky.

I got stronger as I got older–I even ran two half-marathons! When I had our children, I did fine, and never considered that OI would have any bearing on their lives–other than being small, late at walking, having the whites of their eyes be blue, and having long, slender fingers (like me!)

That is, until between them the boys had 3 broken legs and several sprains in the space of a little more than a year.*

At that point, I began to feel guilty: I had done this to them. My ‘bad’ gene made this happen. Oh, they are so very mildly affected–and of course they are good and perfect gifts from God just as they are. But sometimes when my insides clench watching them take a spectacular fall (as kids do) and I just pray pray pray “don’t let them break!”– I can’t help thinking–

“I’M responsible for this frailty.”

Not to be all paranoid or whatever, but here are some things I imagine people saying:

  • Don’t you trust God?
  • It was irresponsible for you to reproduce in the first place.
  • Come on, your form of OI is so mild. Are you really so worried about a few broken bones now & then?

So what a gift from God Ellen’s book is for me. In light of the Christian story, and the context of telling her own family’s beautiful, redemptive story, Ellen raises great questions about the meaning of disability and suffering, about the ethics of using PGD/IVF, about the harsh realities of genetic disease and the myriad difficulties and complications surrounding reproductive technology and the fact that for all parents— “the only way/is hard. We who give life/give pain.”

But it’s by that “pain we learn/the extremity of love.”

Indeed it is.

This is a grace-filled, deeply Christian, thoughtful, wise, beautiful book. Read it!

{*The boys haven’t been hurt–knock on wood!–since that bad year.*}