Monday, April 2, 2012

At Least

Forgive me, world, for posting something that's actually serious...

Infertile people always seem to have a lot to say about tact. It's fun therapeutic I suppose to point out all the tactless things other people say to make things worse. But I need that lesson on tact too, and it's taken me these four years to come to understand one pernicious phrase a little better.

It's these two little words: "At least..."

Fill it in with 
-you're saving so much money
-you get to sleep through the night
-you don't have to deal with horrific tantrums like you just saw my toddler throw
-you get to stay skinny
-you don't have any stretch marks
-you and your husband actually still have a relationship 

There are limitless variations on this phrase, and we use it all the time. In fact, until recently, I also used it all the time. We say it to people whose loved ones die, to moms who have miscarriages, to people who lose their jobs, to people who get cancer, etc. 

We say it because it hurts to see someone suffering. We want to alleviate that suffering by pointing out that things could be worse. It's important to see the bright side, we think.

I completely understand this urge and have been saying this to people my whole life. I am all about looking at the bright side, finding humor in sticky situations, and trying to stay hopeful. 

Here's the problem. Someone says this--completely meaning well and out of a sincere desire to be helpful--but it belittles the problem. Someone who had a miscarriage doesn't need to hear, "Well, at least you have another child." Yes, that's true, and it is great, but miscarriage is still sad. They don't need you to fix it or belittle the fact that they are mourning. (We have not miscarried--this is just an example).

Personally, I'd rather not hear about all the money we're saving because we don't have kids yet--I'd happily pay money to get them (which, it turns out, we are doing. Infertility isn't easy on the wallet...)

Here's another problem with that phrase. We may need to hear the bright side when we are complaining. Sometimes when I'm whining I do need a reminder to be grateful, recognize hidden blessings, maybe even find things to laugh about. 

But it is not for someone who is mourning. Mourning is absolutely legitimate and natural, and a person can mourn a trial or loss or disappointment without complaining or being ungrateful. 

I don't often wax religious on this blog (mostly because I don't often wax serious), but here's a good example from the Bible. Christ visits Mary and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus. They great him with tears. And what does he do? Jesus weeps. He just mourns with them. He doesn't say, "Hey, at least I'm about to raise him from the dead." Even if he wasn't going to do that, he doesn't say, "Hey, he's going to be resurrected so you'll all see him again eventually." He doesn't tell them to quit crying or to feel better or even to trust in His redemptive power. He just weeps. 

Then he raises him from the dead. He lets them mourn first. Interesting, no?

Sometimes when we tell someone "At least..." we are pushing judgment on them--saying that they are wrong to mourn, and that they have a bad attitude about their hard situation. We may be wrong on both counts.

Here's a recent example for me. 

I had a patient which a leg with a nasty infection and some other problems. The surgeon came into her room and explained they needed to do surgery to get rid of the infection, and there was a good chance they'd need to amputate if the infection had spread too far.  I had to step out before he left, and when I returned, I found my poor patient with her face in her hands, sobbing. 

And for once in my life I suppressed the "At least..." that sprang to my lips (took a lot of willpower, I tell you) and instead knelt down next to her and put my hand on her shoulder and just let her cry. I'll admit, a few tears sprang to my eyes as well (don't tell anyone, though, because I have a strict no-crying-in-public policy that I only break for emergencies). Sometimes, it's better to let someone hurt. But help them not hurt alone.

Three days later (after her surgery) I happened by her room and we chatted briefly. She was smiling.

She still had two legs.


  1. Amen - to EVERY single word!!! Love you Camber!

  2. I agree with everything you said. I'm sorry if I have ever made you belittled your trial of infertility. I promise that I didn't mean it if I have ever said anything that was insensitive. I can't even imagine the pain that comes along with this hardship.

    We love you guys. And we frequently mourn your upcoming move.

  3. I know that I have been guilty of this, but I didn't really understand how guilty until now. Thank you for this post.

    I think that some people push the "at least" or other responses because they don't recognize the fact that negative emotions are not the end of the world. It is okay to be in pain. It is part of life. And we don't have to rush past it.

  4. You are such an eloquent writer Camber! I love your insight into the Bible and also your insight into life. Thank you for sharing. I think you are simply amazing!

  5. Very well written. I was actually thinking about this the other day. I realized how many time my kids came to me crying or hurt about something, and lots of times I would 'kiss it better' or tell them I fixed it. In all reality I didn't do anything at all, but they walk away happy because they just wanted someone to realize that something was bothering them and give them a little love.
    I think adults do this to. When we are hurt or crying we don't necessarily want someone to jump in and fix it or tell us to stop crying. We just want a little acknowledgement that it's ok for us to be sad, that it is hard, or just a chance to mourn a little...and then we do are best to make it though it. Of course, you wrote it so much more eloquently. Love you guys. :)

  6. I know exactly how you feel and can relate to many things. Infertility is not fun (emotionally and financially). Great post Camber. I am sure going to miss you.

  7. At least I was trying to say the right thing . . . :) I love your story about Mary and Martha - I've thought of that a lot. I think Christ is a great example of empathy, not just there, but also in his very first miracle, when he turned water into wine. It was not a big deal, but it was something that was important to his mother, and so it was important to him. Just like Lazarus' death wasn't a big deal - he was going to be raised again in like 5 minutes - but it meant a lot to Mary and Martha and Christ understood that. What I like to remind myself of is that everyone has hard times. Even people who look much happier than I ever feel are experiencing things that make them feel sad, frustrated, unfulfilled, alone. It helps me remember to be more empathetic and stop feeling so sorry for myself.

  8. Thank you for this post Camber! I really appreciate the incredible insight.

  9. Camber- sometimes I think I am the most tactless and awkward person ever. You've probably noticed. I feel like I say "At least..." a lot. I love the bible story you gave as an example. Christ was truly perfect in every way! Oh and I could read your writing ALL day. :)

  10. Wonderful thoughts Camber! I totally agree! I also think it was very compassionate of the Saviour to weep with Martha and Mary and to mourn with them. It is so important to not belittle someone else's problems by saying "at least..." I know when I tell someone a problem I have, usually I just want empathy and for them to validate my feelings ("Yeah, that must be really hard!"), rather than have them try to fix it or try to find the good in it all.

    We had trouble getting pregnant the first time, and even though our infertility only lasted a year, at the time it felt like forever and it was so heart-wrenching wondering if and when we would ever be parents. So my heart goes out to anyone having similar trials, espeically for those who have to deal with infertility for years. I'm praying for you and Isaac.

    By the way, I am sure you are the best nurse ever, you are so compassionate. I do miss that aspect of nursing--the close interactions you can have with patients and comforting them when they are dealing with difficult problems.

  11. Camber, I have told you before, you are a gifted writer. I love your blog for that. And I love your honesty. And I love you!

  12. A fantastic post. You're such a great writer, every sentence has the right amount of feeling that I really "get" it. At least, I think I do. Uh oh, I said "at least"!!! ;-)