A few weeks ago my eleven-year-old daughter fainted. The pediatrician ran a few basic tests and determined that everything was normal. We went home. She took it easy. We returned to something resembling normal.
Then, she fainted again. This time I caught her. We returned to the pediatrician, and this time our doctor did more tests: a longer bloodwork panel and a thorough examination of motor skills, memory, and cognitive ability. She then referred us to a pediatric cardiologist. My daughter went home to rest. I went home to sob.
Not only because I was afraid for my daughter, but because the tests she’d just passed were all too familiar. Years ago, I’d watched my husband undergo all those same tests. I’d watched him easily pass those tests and then, as time went on and his cancer progressed, slowly begin to fail every one of the motor skills and cognition tests. I’d caught him as he’d collapsed to the floor, too.
Once I found a voice, I called a friend. I told her what had happened. I admitted that for a split second in that exam room, while I watched my daughter undergo the same tests my husband underwent, I wanted to run. For a heartbeat, I was sure I could not handle what the doctor would say next. I told her that I knew my daughter’s situation was nothing like my husband’s, but that I couldn’t help but fear the worst. I told her that I didn’t have the strength to sit through those tests again—this time with my child on the receiving end. That I would break.
My very well-meaning friend told me that everything would be okay. She said the universe won’t give me more than I can handle. I know she meant to comfort me. I didn’t feel comforted, though. Instead, I felt as if all the feelings and fears I’d just admitted to had been politely brushed aside.
There’s an inherent problem (or two or three) in saying that the universe (or God, if that’s your thing) won’t give you more than you can handle. It’s a statement that’s right up there with “everything happens for a reason”—which I strongly would advise you to never, ever say.
Above all, it’s dismissive and invalidating. The statement tells the person on the receiving end that the thing they feel is hard isn’t actually hard—presumably because the universe wouldn’t do that. It’s telling the person you’re trying to comfort that their fears and worries aren’t warranted. Essentially, during a time when someone desperately needs to be heard, that statement tells them there’s nothing to listen to.
The statement “the universe won’t give you more than you can handle” also requires everyone to trust the universe. It requires you to believe that the universe is fair, orderly, and benevolent. I learned long ago that none of that is true. The universe is random and chaotic, and if not all out cruel, then at least indifferent. The universe frequently gives folks more than they can handle. Millions of people have gotten more than they can handle, and are suffering—economically, physically, medically, emotionally, mentally.
Along those lines, there’s an inherent privilege threaded through the idea that the universe won’t give you more than you can handle. Folks who have been able to handle everything the universe has thrown at them, who can more easily believe that statement, generally have resources—financial, emotional, social—that many don’t. It’s easier to handle things when you’re not struggling financially, when you have support and family, when you can get access to healthcare and other resources.
The reality is sometimes we are given more than we can handle. To pretend otherwise hurts us all. It doesn’t allow us to fail. It doesn’t allow us to recognize that sometimes we muddle through the mess and still fail to come out the other side. The universe doesn’t guarantee happily ever afters. It’s a hard truth but a truth nonetheless.
There are better options than the universe if you’re looking to comfort a friend. The simplest of them all: just be there. Listen and validate that things are hard and messy. Understand that sometimes the universe does give you more than you can handle. Let the person you’re comforting know that they are not alone, whether they can handle what comes next or not. Let them know if they can’t handle it, you’ll still be right there, without judgment.
I don’t yet know the cause of my daughter’s fainting—we’re still looking for answers, but so far her episodes seem to have passed. As it turned out, I could handle this most recent medical scare, but not because the universe willed it so. But because I had doctors who listened and friends who sat with me and no illusions about what the universe would or wouldn’t do.