Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Sorry for the lengthy absence! This is the third part of a series that was published in the local paper, again with light editing.
“Suppose,” Abraham asks God, “there were fifty righteous people in Sodom; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it?”
When confronted with the possibility of a loss, it is natural to bargain. If the boss threatens to fire us, we may offer to work harder, or maybe take a pay-cut. If a person declares they’re leaving the relationship, we may promise to “shape up” or otherwise change our behavior, so that they’ll stay. When the doctors tell us about a life-threatening illness, whether it affects us or those we care about, we may try to come up with other options, and get the doctor to try something else. In each case we ask, “how can I stop this from happening?”
In the previous post, I wrote about anger as a response to loss, and bargaining is closely related. When we’re faced with a bad situation in which we feel overwhelmed and powerless, it’s natural to try to regain leverage. We try to do something, even when there is nothing to be done. And as with anger, it’s not a necessary “stage” that we go through: not everyone tries to bargain when coming to terms with a loss. It is a normal reaction, however.
People often try to strike a bargain when anticipating a loss; this was particularly noted by the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In her book, On Death and Dying, she wrote about the “five stages of grief,” which has served as a kind of map to an unfamiliar territory ever since. In the previous two posts, I’ve written about the first two stages, denial and anger; in the next two posts, I will write about depression and acceptance. Knowing that this is a familiar pattern has helped many people through difficult times of transition. Although she was writing about dying, we see similar reactions to other kinds of losses, such as losing a job or ending a relationship. These are common stages that people pass through, but every person’s journey is unique, and it’s important to honor the process of grief for the individual. At the same time, it can be comforting to know that other people have gone through similar experiences.
When I was working as a chaplain in a hospital, I often heard family members of patients wish they could take the place of the suffering patient. “Why couldn’t it have been me?” It often seems as if it would be easier to bear pain oneself than to watch a loved one suffer. Just about eight years ago, my daughter had to undergo the first in a series of back surgeries. After a long and slow recovery she’s better now, but she can no longer do some of the things she enjoyed before, such as swimming and playing soccer. I remember feeling powerless, and wondering why this had to happen to her, rather than me. I grieved the possibilities that seem to lie ahead of my little girl, potentials cut short, and wonder why it couldn’t have been me instead.
Similarly, after a death, family members often wonder what else they could have done, second-guessing themselves. This, too, is a kind of bargaining, even though it’s after the fact, asking “what if…?” How might we have changed things to get a different outcome? Most of the time, we can’t know the answers to these questions; often, the final result would have been the same regardless.
In each case, we want a different outcome. Bargaining is an attempt to regain some control in a situation where we feel out of control. However, even when we can’t see it in the moment, we have to trust that God will make things work out in the long run.