[Disclaimer: This post discusses this week’s episode of The Bachelorette. The Bachelorette is usually just entertaining garbage, but every now and again, something happens on it that makes you think. Unfortunately, sometimes, especially this season, that “something” is extremely problematic, and that is certainly the case with the situation I’m going to discuss here, which never should have aired on national television. I’m seriously questioning whether I’ll keep watching the show after this season as a result of this and other choices ABC has made. But, it did bring up a lot of thoughts for me, and I think they’re still worth discussing here.]
This week was “Hometowns” on The Bachelorette, in which our hero, Rachel, goes to visit the families of the four remaining men. One of these men, Dean, had indicated previously that his family wasn’t exactly Norman Rockwell-esque. After his mother died when he was a teenager, he felt emotionally abandoned by his dad. As a result, they don’t have a close relationship, and Dean even admits that he hasn’t seen him in two years. Suffice it to say he is not exactly pumped to introduce his girlfriend to him. Rachel, who comes from a very close, loving family, wants to try to help. And that’s where she goes wrong. As Molly Fitzpatrick writes,
Rachel is concerned by Dean’s estrangement from [his dad], and particularly concerned that he hasn’t tried to close the gap between them. She encourages Dean to confront his dad about the emotional distance he kept from his kids after their mother passed away, which seems like an objectively terrible plan for a high-stress reunion taking place on a national television show about dating. Also, quick reminder: Some parents are toxic and their children have every right to cut them out of their lives. That’s all!
Spoiler alert: It is a terrible plan, and it goes about as well as you might expect.
There was a lot of discussion around the internet and on podcasts about this event that shared Fitzpatrick’s concerns. Many people who also have toxic parents were painfully reminded of times when others didn’t understand their need for boundaries and only seemed to care about whether or not they had done their part to reach out and make it right. There were a lot of comments about the fact that some relationships can’t be saved (or if they can, the responsibility lies with the offending parents, not the child), but because that’s unsettling, people like Rachel can’t help but try to come up with the “solution” instead of comforting and trusting the person who’s hurting.
All of this reminded me of something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is that far too often, we assume that people’s problems are always 1) fixable, and therefore, 2) the most important thing we can do is “encourage” them to fix them. We investigate to see if they’ve done everything in their power to solve the problem, and if they haven’t, then we can conclude that they’re just being irresponsible or self-pitying. (Or, we may talk to ourselves about our own problems this way.)
That might be true if your problem is that you’re hungry but you just don’t feel like going to the grocery store. But what if your problem involves real pain? What if you’re really suffering? To fixate on the solutions in that case is just cruel because 1) There might not really be a solution, 2) If there is, it might be really, really hard, and 3) It might not be entirely within your control. In Dean’s case, for Rachel to focus on what HE’s done to fix it makes it seem like she’s kicking him while he’s down: “Sorry that your dad was so awful to you, but I can’t believe you haven’t done this REALLY HARD THING and reached out to him and fixed it!” Many people commented online that Rachel probably just didn’t understand how truly awful Dean’s family situation could be because she has such a good one; the possibility that a family situation may be so bad that it’s better to have your family out of your life doesn’t even occur to her.
It’s hard to just be sad with and comfort someone in deep pain, because let’s face it, deep pain is really uncomfortable, both to experience and observe. And if we’re Christians, we might not even feel like it’s okay. In Good News for Anxious Christians, Philip Cary talks about some Christians’ inability to accept the fact that other Christians may not always “experience joy, ” based on the lie that “You’re not really allowed to be sad at heart, because everybody says Christians are supposed to have a deep inner joy in their hearts, which is always there beneath all the troubles of life” (137-138). (Or, as I like to call it, “But everything’s okay because JESUS!”) He writes:
The idea that Christians are supposed to have a deep inner joy all the time is a terribly cruel notion….it turns people who wish to comfort the afflicted into tormentors. They want to help their suffering friends get their joy back, but in the process they insist their friends accept the underlying idea that it’s not normal for the Christian life to include deep suffering of heart. So in addition to their suffering, their friends are wounded by the suggestion that their affliction is due to some failure in their Christian life---as if there’s something wrong with Christians who have a cross to bear. (139)
Rather than be tormentors, Cary says, oftentimes we ought to simply “be present” with those who suffer and “recognize that sometimes we have no words to make things better” (147).
That’s what I think Rachel should have done when Dean told her about his issues with his family: quietly listened, acknowledged his feelings and his hardship, and let him know she was there for him. Maybe later it would have been appropriate to broach the possibility of talking to his dad as a way of helping Dean heal. But it wasn’t okay for her to blame Dean for not taking those steps yet and to try to immediately “fix” a situation she didn’t really understand, minimizing Dean’s pain.
This isn’t to say that what Rachel did isn’t understandable. I know that I probably would have done the same thing not that long ago. But if (and when) we do encounter someone who is deeply hurting, let’s remember to weep with those who weep.