Some years back, I was hanging out in the smoking rea of the day shelter I ran at the time. It was one of my favorite community-building activities – it’s hard to have any agenda in a smoking area, especially if you yourself do not smoke.
If you just hung out there long enough, people would forget you were the guy in charge of everything, and eventually, they would just talk. And if you were willing to just listen, you heard some amazing things.
Like the time I heard how one of our guests had been in a drug deal gone bad, and so the other party to the deal was looking for him to kill him, but our guest had hidden in a dumpster and the would-be killer overlooked him.
He turned to me and then said, “Pastor, that’s why I believe in God. Because he was protecting me that day.”
Well, as the old saying goes, the Lord protects fools, drunks and, I guess, drug dealers.
Anyway. Another time, and to the point of this conversation, I overheard two guys talking. It seems that this was homeless because he had cheated on his girlfriend, and she found out about it, and she had then thrown all his stuff out in the street when he wasn’t home, changed the locks, and also called the woman he was cheating on her with, who was unaware he was cheating, and who also threw all his stuff out and locked him out.
So he’s telling this story to another guy who we will call Guy #2.
Guy #1: I ain’t mad though. This is all part of God’s plan.
Guy #2: Oh, how do you figure?
Guy #1: I mean, I just figure everything happens for a reason.
Guy #2; Sure. But sometimes, the reason is that you did some stupid shit.
Well, yes. There is that.
Our impulse to make meaning from chaos is strong. I have spent more time than most people at the deaths of youths who died violent deaths, and I always hear folks say that God needed them more than we did, or that this is all part of God’s plan, or that God won’t give us more than we can handle – all of which are really stupid things to say that bring comfort to no one but the speaker.
But they say them anyway.
I get how it happens though. As I look back over my life, I see things that turned out poorly – a bad relationship, a job I got fired from unjustly, a friendship gone bad – that at the time seemed horrible, but which, in time, became a turning point for my life, and that led to my finding a better partner, or a more rewarding job, or led to my developing healthier relationships.
And so it is tempting to believe that the bad thing that happened was part of the plan – God’s, The Universe’s, hell – somebody’s – and that it was foreordained that as a result of this bad thing, I would be better off eventually.
But I don’t believe that to be true.
What I believe is that the universe is inherently frugal, and wastes nothing. The leaves that fall from the trees in Autumn become compost that feeds the trees in Spring. The flurried attempts to get nourishment by bees from flowers are also the accidental means by which flowers get pollinated, and thus exist. The spring ephemeral flowers only exist because the leaves fall off the trees, and thus bring sunshine to places that are normally in darkness.
The Universe is a very frugal place.
And I exist in that frugal universe. And so do you. We don’t just exist in it – we are part of it. Like the leaves, or the bees, or the flowers. And so, since the universe wastes nothing, the tragedies that befall all of us are not debris left over from disasters, but building materials from which we build our lives.
And so the fact that I spent most of my 20’s doing a job that I hated, that required me to do things I found abhorrent and that led to my drinking an unhealthy amount to survive was neither a personal disaster nor part of a benevolent god’s plan, but rather the source of the skills (such as public speaking, persuasive writing skills, and confidence in dealing with people) that I have used to build a 15-year career advocating for people who have their backs against the wall and effecting culture change. Work I would not have had the tools to do had I not learned them then, in that ugly period of my life.
Like bones and water, which, with time. Heat, and intention, form broth, the things in our past are the materials with which we build our future.
I once knew a lady who lived in a van. Her story was harsh and brutal, and she had legitimate grievances about the circumstances that led her there, and her reasons for being unable to be rehoused. But she wasn’t angry. I asked her why not, and she told me she never really thought of it that way.
“I don’t focus much on what got me here. I just ask myself what I’m supposed to be doing now that I’m here.”
That sounds like a plan to me.