"Why?” It’s a question we all ask. We want to know why things happen. We want to grasp the meaning and purpose behind what we’re experiencing, the suffering we’re enduring, or the choice someone else makes that directly affects us.
Sometimes the answers are clear; more often they require an act of faith like my experience of Banff, Canada. I was told that the quaint village was surrounded by mountains, but I couldn’t see them. The clouds were so thick the one and only morning I visited that to this day, I have to believe by faith (not by sight) that they truly were there.
In our own lives, most of us have a mental “script” of how we think life will go. And, of course, that script has a happy ending. However, that’s not always what happens. Infants die. Teenage girls become pregnant. Alcoholism turns ugly. Buildings blow up. Heart attacks whisk loved ones away. Colliding with a sudden script change can push us to one extreme or the other. On the one hand, it can shatter our faith, especially when we can’t see the mountains, and the pain screams to be numbed through a glass of alcohol or a glorious chocolate binge. On the other hand, unexpected life changes can invite us to press deeper into God.
Why does the script of life change? Why doesn’t life go the way we want? Is there a meaning and purpose behind these events? Can we hold onto faith, even when we can’t see the outcome? Can we believe in a good God, despite crushing tragedy and suffering?
Faith, joy, and happiness rise and fall on these questions. There is no shame in asking why. It’s the most human thing to do. The challenge is to keep asking why until the light of faith pierces the clouds. Until then, may we say with the centurion who sought Jesus’ healing power, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Stories of Script Changes
I’d like to relate some real stories of real people who experienced life not going the way they wanted. Instead of turning away from God, they allowed the script change to turn them toward God, to press them into God, to reconnect them with God. After much struggle and even combating with God, they changed their categories of thinking and walked through the doorway of surrender to deeper prayer, intimacy, and peace.
Leslie’s Family. There’s a woman I know named Leslie, who graduated from college, worked as a nanny in France, and was still single at the age of twenty-seven. Obviously, it’s not the end of the world to be single at twenty-seven, but if you were planning to be married and have children by age twenty-three, sometimes it can feel as if you missed God’s plan.
However, in God’s providence, Leslie met a handsome concert pianist, and wedding bells soon chimed. Within a year, a son was born and seventeen months later, another son. Baby paraphernalia, diapers, and first smiles reawakened her original expectation for many children. Then Leslie experienced a miscarriage, and another, and a third in which she almost bled to death.
Suddenly the script changed. Instead of having half a dozen children, Leslie and her husband had to avoid pregnancy just so that she didn’t die.
To the outside world, Leslie’s life looked ideal. She had a beautiful brick home, two healthy, handsome boys, and a loving, talented husband. On the inside, Leslie had to adjust to a changed script, to the forced downsizing of her family and to the loss of children she would never have.
Then at Mass one morning, I noticed that Leslie was carrying a wrapped-up bundle. I thought to myself, “I know I haven’t seen her in a couple of months, but could she possibly have been pregnant and given birth?” I quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. Instead, someone who knew that Leslie and her husband wanted more children contacted them and said they knew of a young woman who was pregnant and was intending to give her baby up for adoption. Would they be interested? Of course! So here was Leslie, the proud mom of a tiny infant daughter. And here’s how God works to tailor the details. Leslie has dark skin because she is part Trinidadian, and her husband is Maltese, so he has an olive complexion. Their daughter is biracial, so she fits right into the family with dark skin and hair, just like Leslie, her husband, and two sons.
But the story isn’t over. Leslie became pregnant again and delivered a full-term baby girl, whom they named Anastasia. And she had Down syndrome, with two enormous holes in the upper and lower chambers of her heart. As a result, Anastasia was constantly close to heart failure.
When Anastasia was four months old, one of the nation’s premier heart surgeons, who only lived forty-five minutes away, operated on her just before he relocated from the area. After the operation, she finally started to grow, but her heart was enlarging because it was working overtime, and the holes were enlarging as well. Leslie and her husband took Anastasia to Lourdes, France, when she was a year old. Six months later when they saw the heart specialist, the holes had closed, her heart was back to normal size, and she had grown in weight and height by 75 percent!
When I talked to Leslie shortly before Anastasia’s second birthday, she told me that Anastasia had been the greatest gift to her family, particularly to her oldest son, as he learned to shift the focus from himself to his little sister. In fact, Leslie feels so privilege that she thinks others should be envious of her!
Has the script change been painful for Leslie? Yes. She’s experienced a collage of disappointment, fear, hurt, and near death. But through life not going her way, God brought Leslie to a place of even deeper trust and hope in him. She drew closer to God. She shared her joys and sorrows with him, and that has taken her deeper into prayer and confident trust.
9/11 Hero. In the summer of 2003, I went to the graduation ceremony at Villanova University in Philadelphia. One of the graduation speakers was Suzanne Berger. For Suzanne and her husband, James, September 11, 2001, began as an ordinary day, just as it did for most of the rest of the world. However, her husband worked at 2 World Trade Center. She told us that after the first tower was hit, an announcement was made in Tower 2 for everyone to stay where they were and to continue working. (I know this is unimaginable now, but at the time, no one knew exactly what had happened, and they wanted to avoid a chaotic stampede.) However, something within her husband, James, told him disaster was on the horizon. He left his desk and began to herd people out of their offices. He refused to let them stay. He pulled them out from behind their desks; he made them get on the elevator and leave or go down the stairs.
But James himself didn’t make it out alive. Suzanne said something very beautiful at the graduation that stuck in my mind. She said 9/11 showed the rest of the world what she and her three sons already knew—that James was a hero, that he was unselfish, that he put others first. And because he put others first, 156 of his fellow employees survived that day.
Did the script change for Suzanne? You bet it did. Were there dreams that died that day on September 11? Absolutely. Did she turn her back on God? I’m sure there were moments of shock, disbelief, and unimaginable grief, but she was able to see God’s hand even in the midst of the pain and suffering; she was able to see the gift of life that her husband gave to 156 other people and how God has sustained her through events she thought she’d never have to face. Pain and tragedy propelled her into a deeper relationship with God, into deeper prayer. She learned to surrender to the eyes of faith, to open the eye of her heart to see God even when God seemed absent to the rest of the world.
I hope these stories bring you hope and build up your faith, as they do for me. They also remind me that others have walked the journey before me and have survived. No, I take that back. They have thrived. They have allowed the pain and suffering of a changed script, combined with the healing power of time and grace, to discover that lemonade can be made of lemons.
Read more about how to face disappointments and pain with faith and hope in When Life Doesn’t Go Your Way by Katrina J. Zeno (The Word Among Us Press, 2009). Available at wau.org/books