It Sucks to Grow Up
By J. Aaron Simmons
Partnering with God is not about getting what we want, but trusting God to walk with us regardless of the outcomes.
When I was seven years old, my little sister was three. One day she had a stomachache and my parents took her to the doctor only to discover, to their horror, that she had a tumor on her kidney. It turned out to be a specific kind of cancer called “Wilms Tumor.” You can imagine that the following months were a whirlwind of doctors, hospitals, surgeries, chemotherapy, stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration.
I remember one day in particular when my parents took me, my two brothers who were five and one, all to see my sister in the hospital. Her white blood cell count was so low that even a cold could have killed her. We had to wear masks and gloves and could only go into her room in small groups to protect her from the risks that we posed.
My sister’s first memories are of the fear and panic as she was being led into surgery to have her kidney removed. In order to calm her young fears, the doctor told her that he needed her to blow up a balloon for her brothers, and then put the mask on her that would help her go to sleep. For years after that, my sister commented about how mad she was at the doctor for lying to her.
There was no balloon. There was only trauma.
I am now a parent of an eleven-year-old boy. I thought I had a general understanding of my parents’ struggle through that difficult time, but it was not until I became a parent that I really began to understand what it means to be wrecked by love. I am prepared to protect my son, whatever the cost; I would lay in traffic for him without hesitation. There is no fear too great when it comes to saving him. I would punch a shark, fight a bear, jump off a cliff, lift a car, whatever is required! Boom.
But what about those times when there is nothing you can do? Things are much harder when your love precisely requires you to trust others, rather than to jump into action yourself. That is what my parents faced with my sister. That is what I am learning as I watch my son grow up. The singer and songwriter Ben Folds has a line in a song where he says, “Everybody knows, it sucks to grow up, but everybody does.” That gets it exactly right. When I was seven, it was hard enough to watch my sister go through that trauma, but I could not make sense of the willed trust that was required to navigate it. My parents, however, actively had to hand their daughter off to others and trust that the others would care for her in responsible ways. I didn’t fully understand the anguish of this until my son had to have a very minor surgery when he was three years old; a hernia repair. I recall watching him being pushed down the hallway by the nurses in a little wheelchair that looked like a race car, and I was absolutely heartbroken. There was nothing else that I could do.
Our narratives of egoistic self-sufficiency are ruptured by the very fact that trust is part of the human condition.
But so is hope.
Whilst in the hospital, my parents became very close with another young couple whose own three-year-old year son was also facing a cancer diagnosis. I remember my parents getting together with that other couple and trusting God together. Praying, and praying, and praying. They quoted passages from Scripture about the healing that comes from God. They assured each other in their faith in God. Their hope was not simply that their kids would be OK, but that God would ensure that they were.
My son quickly came out of surgery for his hernia and within a couple days had recovered fully. The fear of seeing him taken down that hallway (why are the hallways always so awfully long in hospitals?) was quickly overcome with the joy of seeing him running around the house just a couple days later. My sister’s ordeal was much more complicated. Though her surgery was successful, the chemotherapy and treatments that followed were life changing. Our family had to move states to get the right treatment. My parents changed jobs to ensure appropriate health care coverage. My family became numb to the ups and downs of extended cancer recovery. It was an exceedingly difficult and painful time.
One step forward, two steps backward, three steps forwards, no motion for a long time, then more steps in both directions.
Eventually, slowly, tediously, my sister recovered. She gained strength. She got her hair back. We used to call her “peach-fuzz,” which she hated! The permanent tubes installed in her chest for the treatments were removed. My parents stayed together. Bankruptcy was avoided. My parents often recounted the narrative of that difficult time and their mantra has always been “God was faithful.”
My sister is now 40. She is the mother of a talented, amazingly smart young son, author of several books, and a professor of religious studies at a research university. God’s faithfulness continues.
I am sure that you might think this is where I would bring this little essay to a close by commenting on God’s “partnering” with my parents, with the doctors, and with my sister, bringing us through the fear and pain into a rich, fulfilling life. It seems like I should now have a conclusion about the value of trusting God for that which we hope, and then seeing God’s faithfulness again and again.
Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Remember the other couple whose son was also in the pediatric cancer ward with my sister? Well, their son didn’t recover. Instead of getting his hair back, he had a funeral. No caskets should ever be that small! Where was God’s faithfulness to them? It doesn’t seem like their trust was well placed at all. Their hopes were defeated with the doctor’s words, “there just isn’t anything else we can do.” On hearing this, our hearts cry out that surely God can do more! As we used to sing in my churches, “Whose report will you believe? I will believe the report of the Lord. His report says I am healed!”
Perhaps God needs to hear that song a few more times?
Here’s the thing—we need to realize that partnering with God is not about expecting God to enact our hopes for particular successful outcomes. That is an economic logic that is out of step with the kenotic example set by Christ. Trust is not something that is given because we can prove it is worthwhile, as judged by external manifestations like healing. Instead, trust is a personal investment that recognizes the risk that continues internal to the relationship itself.
That other couple who lost their son didn’t trust God less than my parents.
They didn’t have less faith.
My sister’s life is certainly a miracle, but so is everyone’s life. And, importantly, the miracle such as the one which characterizes my sister’s story might be defined by lots of therapy for both the body and the mind. Partnering with God doesn’t eliminate the need for therapy, but simply reminds us that God goes with us to our appointments.
The point is that partnering with God is about trusting that God walks with us even when we do not think we have the strength to keep walking.
Hope is not ultimately a matter of expecting particular results, but about not defining our life’s meaning by such results.
When we explore the life of Jesus, we see that God understands the human condition, and in particular, what it means to be a parent. The struggles and the feelings of being destitute, as well as the joys and wonderful surprises. God walked with my parents as my sister recovered and walked with the other couple as they lost their son. Faithfulness was enacted in both situations. Hope was not defeated in either case. There is no human suffering that God does not understand, even the death of a child. In fact, the cross of Christ points to just this.
Do I still believe in the possibility of, as philosophers would say, “unilateral divine intervention in historical human affairs”? That is, do I still pray for God to heal my son when he is sick and believe that God can do so? Yes. But my trust in God is not limited to God’s respect of the economic logic of human desire. My trust is in a God who loves us and partners with us. Such trust allows my hope to be one that acknowledges that human existence matters—even when things don’t turn out how we would have liked. God partners with us, not to remove us from the sorrows, the frailties, and the risks, but to help us navigate them.
The goal is not successful outcomes, but faithful movement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that we should avoid “any escapism disguised as piety.” He is right.
It sucks to grow up. But everyone does. Thankfully, regardless of the outcomes, God partners with us the entire way.
Question: Why is it so hard to disconnect faith, hope, and trust from the desire for specific results in our lives?
J. Aaron Simmons is professor of philosophy at Furman University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including God and the Other (Indiana UP), Christian Philosophy (Oxford UP), and Kierkegaard’s God and the Good Life (Indiana UP), and has recently completed an edited volume entitled Liturgies: Philosophical Explorations of Embodied Religious Practice. Simmons has been president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society and the South Carolina Society for Philosophy. As much as Simmons loves philosophy, he would always rather be trout fishing.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.