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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

Why "Normalizing" Suffering Isn't the Answer


“The pandemic has been hard for all of us.”


“Everybody goes through hard times.”


“We all have to deal with the loss of a loved one at some point.”


“Life is just hard.”


Perhaps some of you can resonate with the experience of trying to open up to someone about your pain and struggles, and you’ve been met with one of the above or a similar response. How did you react when they spoke those words to you? Did it make you want to share more of your heart or pain with them? Did you feel your guard go up almost instantaneously?


Just because something is true does not make it helpful. Although each of the above statements are true to a certain extent, it does not mean that they are helpful answers to someone in physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual anguish.


Human beings will go to brilliant lengths to try to distance ourselves from pain and discomfort. We use these kinds of statements and phrases to help protect ourselves from pain. When we encounter someone else’s pain, it takes a lot of energy (if you have empathy) to not feel that pain. Conversely, when we block out or diminish another person’s pain (through the use of one of these statements or “normalizing” their suffering) we then are relieved from tapping into their pain, our own pain, and the shared pain of humanity.


A while back, I had a conversation with a client who felt confusion and shame as to why they were experiencing significant impact from a series of life circumstances. They were insistent that their situation was “normal”, and were therefore frustrated and bewildered as to why they weren’t able to “handle normal life.”


Enter Righteously Angry Sam, who herself has experienced an array of both normal and abnormal life circumstances and has felt the unnecessary accompanying shame as a result of a rigid set of rules and beliefs on what I should and shouldn’t feel.


There is nothing normal about mental health challenges, psychological and emotional pain, toxic relationships and work-environments, chronic illness and pain, grief and death, or the many other issues I could add to this list.


Just because it’s common, doesn’t make it normal.


Let me unpack that statement, lest you hear a message I didn’t intend: Grief, mental health struggles, relationship issues are common. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a mental health disorder (SAMHSA, 2020). But just because they’re a common occurrence doesn’t make it “normal” to experience. What I’m NOT saying is that if you experience one or more of the above issues that you are somehow not normal.


What I AM saying is that none of those things are in line with God’s original vision and design for humanity, and are therefore not normal in light of the perfect Shalom God has created us for.


There is nothing normal about watching a loved one die.


There is nothing normal about walking with a friend through their suicidal ideation.


There is nothing normal about being victim to someone’s racist ideologies and behaviors.


There is nothing normal about isolation, loneliness, and disconnection from other humans.


When we look at God’s original design for our humanity as the standard for “normal,” we can then create space for our anger, sadness, and grief when we experience things as they aren’t supposed to be.


Rather than easing our distress through diminishing another’s, we can have blessed assurance that we can handle the pain of this world, not because it’s “normal,” but because we have a God who has died in order to restore the world to a perfect normal of his Shalom. We can bear witness to the pain of both another and ourselves, because we know that there will be a restoration of the original design, where all things will be made new and where “He will dwell with [us], and [we] will be his people, and God himself will be with [us] as [our] God. He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4-5).


If you want someone to walk with you through a season of abnormal experiences, click here to schedule an initial consultation and learn how counseling can support your journey.



Resources

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP20-07-01-001). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf.

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