But For The Grace of God

When I was a girl, my brothers and sister and I had the usual kid-like responses to the world around us.  One of them was innocent astonishment at those less fortunate than we: the man at the bus stop without a leg, the “retarded” kid on the playground, homeless people.  If we were unwise enough to comment on them negatively in our father’s presence we felt the full force of his disapproval, the full weight of his teaching.  “When you see someone less fortunate than you, you are never to comment out loud,” he told us, ”you just look inside yourself and say ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’… and then you start figuring out how you can help them.”  And you better believe, we listened to our Dad.

It’s easy to harbor secretly a conviction that we’re more fortunate because we’re somehow “better”, and, conversely,  to believe – somewhat magically – that we can also call misfortune down on ourselves by “unwise choices”.  It makes good pop psychology, but I believe it would not be a stance adopted by wise men and great teachers; not by Gandhi, not by Jesus. We swim in the sea of our own great good fortune in this country: we have historically unprecedented wealth and prosperity (even the more humble of us). Our homes are clean; our water is clean; we have free public education; we have not had a war on our own shores in a very long time.  Is this because we are better than everyone else on the planet?  No, just more lucky. Other cultures understand and acknowledge the role of luck. Take for example, contemporary Chinese culture. I see the Chinese as a pragmatic culture.  They revere the role of “luck” and talk about it all the time.  They recognize that some of us are lucky and some of us are not.  They do not mistake luck for virtue. I have had many occasion to think about this in my career as an eating disorder physician. I cannot tell you how often I am told by stressed, scared parents: “I don’t want to go to parent support group.  Those  people’s problems are worse than mine.”  Or sometimes,  “I don’t want my child in the program with those other kids.  My child is different, he/she is not as sick as the others.” It can, of course, be hard to participate in a group of other parents going through the same or similar issues as we are, to sit and acknowledge that we are devastated that our child could become ill enough to need hospitalization or the Day Treatment Unit, to count ourselves among other humans, hammered by circumstance.  It can be hard to acknowledge that we are no better than other people, and to do this when we are feeling frightened, vulnerable and — often — guilty. One distraught mother told me, “I know you’ll hate me for this, but I don’t want to go to parent group.  I don’t want to hear other people’s stories. It’s bad enough. Some of their kids are much sicker than my son. I don’t want to have to deal with feeling sorry for someone else.”  I wanted to let her know that if it was true that the other children were sicker than hers, then she could take a deep breath, channel my Dad, and whisper “there but for the grace of God, go I”. In parent group, as in life, to share is human, to support is divine.