What to do When Life Knocks You Down

You’ve got all that emotion that’s heaving like an ocean
And you’re drowning in a deep, dark well
I can hear it in your voice that if you only had a choice
You would rather be anyone else.
— Andrew Peterson, “Be Kind to Yourself”

Last January, my family took a trip to the beach with some friends. My little boy brought the brand-new football he’d gotten for Christmas. It was painted bright orange, with black lighting rods swirling around the sides. While playing near the water's edge one day, Ben’s friend miscalculated and the football landed in the frigid ocean water. Instead of asking for help from an adult, my six-year-old reacted like most other children his age. He saw a prized Christmas gift floating away, and neither the temperature nor the depth of the water had registered in his mind.

"My football!" he shrieked in horror, as the waves threatened to pull it out to sea. Ben's face was turning red and splotchy, as tears lept from his eyes. At a pitch that only a dog could hear, he screamed again, "My fooooootballlll!"

I watched all of this play out in slow motion, and with a balance of force and love, I snatched him up and yelled, "Ben! Get back!" It was nearly too late. I exhaled a deep and furious breath and watched the football for a moment, trying to see which direction the tide was going. Even as my child continued to shred my eardrums with his incessant screaming, I was going to do everything in my power to save the stupid football and not end up waist-deep in frigid ocean water on New Year's Eve, four blocks from home. Naturally, my response time would have been different if my son and the football had been switched.

Times like these remind me of the importance of practicing stillness. Chaos screams, "Get it!" with blood-curdling intensity. While Calm says, "That water is freezing, and you can purchase a replacement football for $7.99." Chaos says, "Hurry!" Calm says, "It's just a football." And can I tell you something? In my life, most of the time, it's just a football.

When It’s More Than a Football

My little boy's chaos was just a toy football, but my mom’s sister hooked a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of her car and went to sleep in the then-vacant lot where she used to live. My grandfather found her body a few days later.

I was fourteen when my Aunt Missy died by suicide. It was the last day of June in Alabama when a police car pulled up to our new house, which was still under construction. Per the officer’s instructions, we loaded up in the minivan and drove down the hill to the fire station where my dad worked so Mom could call her parents. Very few people had cell phones yet, and my Momma wasn’t one of them. I’ll never forget the way she shrieked in horror, “My sister!” as she dropped the grey receiver and it swung out and slammed back against the concrete wall, there in the lobby of Fire Station #1.

Aunt Missy had been missing three days. And this wasn’t her first attempt. She’d had many episodes in recent years. As hard as my grandmother tried to help, nothing helped. Even with all the training I’ve taken and books I’ve read, I don’t think you can stop someone who is bound and determined to end their suffering. And even though we all carried the eerie expectancy of that dreaded phone call, my mom’s sister was dead, and my cousins had just lost their mother.

Aunt Missy’s funeral was my first time to be a pallbearer, and carrying my favorite aunt to her final resting place was an unusual burden to bear as a preteen. I remember letting go of the metal handles as we set her mauve casket down, my lip quivering as I turned around. I walked right into my Dad’s chest and sobbed as my head landed there.

Sometimes, it's more than just a football.

When my friend and award-winning author of Some Things You Keep, J.J. Landis was just a teenager, her mom died by suicide. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of her confession is this, “You don’t get to be carefree when your mom commits suicide.” These days, my friend has a genuine faith, which has transformed her life, but J.J. once told me that nothing is ever as easy as taking a magic Jesus pill and expecting everything to be okay.

Katie McKenna was 25 when she was run over by a truck. Her body was literally crushed by an 18-wheeler on her way to work. Talking about her gripping memoir, How to Get Run Over by a Truck, Katie says:

Everyone has had a moment where they feel like they have been run over by a truck. One pivotal moment that breaks apart everything one knows to be true. My truck moment was literal, but others are figurative. We all have a choice: either mourn the life you lived or fight to create a new life so beautiful that you can’t help but fall in love with it.

In a much darker season of our lives, my wife found herself in the midst of total chaos, receiving a phone call from an emergency room nurse from another town, that I was barely hanging onto life after a serious suicide attempt. Lindsey says:

In times like this, you need someone to hold on to you. But my someone was in an ICU hospital room, nearly dead. My best friend at the time, Gigi, was my anchor. She checked on me regularly. Gigi literally dropped everything and drove me up there because I couldn’t manage to drive myself. She wouldn’t take me at my word when I said, ‘I’m fine,’ but she also didn’t push me. She let me grieve and process, and even listened to my nonsensical murmurings, keeping me safe and serving as an anchor in the midst of all hell breaking loose.

One of my best friends was spending the day at the pool with her family a few years ago when her toddler “left the world for two full minutes before he was reborn on the warm concrete beside the swimming pool that awful day. And in that moment, I too was reborn. I was baptized into a world where babies can die.” The initial crisis may have only lasted two minutes, but while her son is healthy and alive today, this momentary chaos spilled over into Stephanie’s daily life for a long while. In a brilliant article for the Washington Post, she said:

In the weeks after my son’s accident, my emotional stability unraveled. I stopped taking my children out in public, made a drastic change in schools (the better to keep them safe), put alarms on the doors so no one could wander out front alone. I spent my days counting my children’s heads over and again. If one of them went to the playroom alone, the air left the room. If it was that easy for a child — my child — to die, well, I was just going to have to tighten up security.

Eventually, Stephanie went to counseling, started meditation, and increased her exercise to begin to deal with the stress and fear. She recently told me, “In the chaotic seasons of life, when all we can possibly do is trudge through to the next morning and start again, we need to give ourselves permission to do just that” (sounds like self-compassion, right?). Self-compassion sounds silly to a lot of people, but the strive for perfection is unnecessary oppression. This realization has freed me to be really kind to myself.

What about you? Have you ever been there? Have you ever thought, “Maybe this is all there is”? Has discouragement ever smacked you around and made you question what in the hell you’re actually doing here?

What do you do when you're standing, wordless, breathless, after life knocks you down? You’re frozen in the middle of the grocery aisle from an unpredictable and unwanted phone call. Do you take a deep breath and ask for help? Do you call in the reinforcements? Do you seek wisdom from others that you cannot currently access within yourself?

In the moment, I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong way to respond. I think the key might be in preparing yourself in times of calm for how you’ll respond if chaos returns. And offering yourself dump truck loads of grace when the crisis strikes.

Standing on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico last January, the waves soothed my soul. The ocean is a great reminder that nothing ever really stays the same.

Rhythm and rhyme.

Inhale and exhale.

To and fro.

Chaos and calm.

The lungs of the earth expand and contract in an eternal reminder that there's a rhythm and rhyme to all creation. Sometimes the chaos seems unbearable, and at other times, the calm brings healing to our souls. In the midst of it all, there is a great, fathomless mystery. Hope brushes over us, and as quickly as it appears, chaos pulls it back. If you feel like you’re drowning today, the unfortunate truth is this: no one is immune to hard days. But hold on. Don't give up, because eventually the tide will recede and you’ll be able to breathe again.


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