Article ID: JAR2011REAK | By: Anne Kennedy

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Book Review of

Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Life Back Together When Your World Falls Apart 

Rachel Hollis

(Dey Street Books September 2020)


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“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”1 This was the line that resounded in the back of my mind as I came to the final page of Rachel Hollis’ new book, Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Life Back Together When Your World Falls Apart.

“Don’t waste this opportunity,” she concludes. “This life you’re living is a wildly precious gift that most people take for granted. Don’t take it for granted. Live into every inch of it. Live it boldly and with courage. Live it hopefully and with kindness. Live it as yourself. Live it for yourself. Live it for those who can’t. Live it for those who walk beside you.”2 Thus culminates a book-length plea that, no matter what bad thing has befallen you — the reader — you must never give up, you must never let go of your dreams and ambitions, no matter how ephemeral they appear to be. Though bad things have overtaken you, you must pick yourself up and keep going.

How the Book Came to Be. The first thing I did when COVID-19 struck the world was to see how all my favorite motivational experts were coping. The Rachel Hollis YouTube channel was already replete with clips, and so I watched Rachel and her kids build a compost bin, watched her and Dave work out, and watched her launch a 90-day challenge to become an overall better and more functional person. Through March, April, and May, Hollis posted peppy, adorable photos of her and Dave, chatted about writing a book in the middle of all the chaos, and pivoted her brand at lightning speed.

However, according to this timeline,3 Hollis told her husband she was leaving him as early as March 30, only a day before launching the 90-day challenge. In a podcast4 in June talking about the divorce, Hollis explained that the book was going forward, with extensive revisions, and, indeed, it was released on September 29, 2020, as announced. The cover, in keeping with Girl, Wash Your Face (Thomas Nelson, 2018) and Girl, Stop Apologizing (HarperCollins, 2019), features Hollis herself, this time in blue, smiling broadly as always.

I Couldn’t Agree More. The genius of Hollis — especially in terms of branding — is that she is never completely wrong. A good portion of what she says is true. In Girl, Wash Your Face, she poked the beast of victim culture. It’s possible, she said, to get your life together, to make changes, to master your mind, emotions, and decisions. That this truth is more accessible to those in certain demographic and economic situations than others never interrupted her cheerful, can-do flood of advice. In Girl, Stop Apologizing Hollis burnished the truism that it’s ok to be ambitious — never mind the bigger, brighter truth looming in the distance, unacknowledged by her, that there are lots more things to apologize for, like sin, and that eventually those eclipse the smaller experiences of guilt that keep us from realizing all our dreams. In this latest effort, Hollis acknowledges the fact of suffering and the ultimate reality of death itself. “If you want to move forward,” she writes, “be honest about what’s going on even if it’s only to yourself”5 — and I couldn’t agree more, as far as it goes.

Didn’t See That Coming articulates two basically true ideals. First, Hollis’ fighting stance against victimhood and helplessness, an increasingly isolated message in a culture where being in pain is a mark of not only of status, but of virtue, is always refreshing. “I believe,” she says, “that the obstacles we’ve overcome in our past don’t make us weaker, I believe those trials make us warriors,” providing, of course, that you get back up “every time.”6 This point is substantiated with a mixture of the trademark Hollis cheerleading and “What Worked for Me” sections. She doesn’t shy away from bringing up the difficult practical considerations of financial security, admitting that things will never be the same, and showing up for your children. Life is difficult. The only way to cope is to acknowledge that reality and deal with it.

Second, her reiteration of the importance of habit building is prescient. If COVID-19 has taught the western world anything, it is that actions have consequences. If you decide to eat healthy food, exercise every day, and keep a gratitude journal, you will build precious mettle. “I’m not obsessed with great-habit creation,” she writes, “because those habits make the good days better (though that’s an incredible added bonus). I’m obsessed with great-habit creation because they make the bad days bearable.”7

No matter your religious convictions, this is an unassailable reality. If you haven’t been reading your Bible, praying, or going to church, it will be impossible to start when you most require those anchoring disciplines. Indeed, building proper and functional habits is the chief way of not falling a victim to circumstances, of not being overcome by pain, of mastering the mind and emotions when something unexpectedly terrible happens. The two — not giving way to grief and building good habits — work together and are a good way to order life.

Nevertheless, there were elements of Hollis’ advice for getting through a crisis that I found troubling. These included her admonishments about never showing your weakness to your children, her breathless rush over the theological questions that arose for her out of losing her brother, and the idea that the key way of dealing with the bad things of life is to double down on finding your identity.

Don’t Be Fake with Your Children. One of the great weaknesses of Hollis’s brand is that her own choices are her lodestar, and she seems to expect that they will be yours too. After an unhappy childhood she fled for the big city, hustled hard, and eventually made it big. This rather narrow view of life integrates neither a Christian view of suffering nor even a particularly human one. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in her advice for parenting children in the middle of a crisis. In her own words:

Your kids are never old enough to watch you have a breakdown. Your kids are never, ever old enough for you — the parent — to process your pain, grief, fear, and anxieties with them. Never. It is not your child’s job to hold space for you to fall apart. Call your therapist, your priest, your rabbi, or your best friend but don’t you dare ask your kids to carry you through a hard season. It is your job to be strong for them, even if you have to fake it. That’s what you signed up for. (emphasis added)8

She goes on a page later:

Your children should not know that you are stressed out. If you’re worried, you need to protect them from that. If you’re having a hard day, go into your room and have a good cry or a glass of wine or scream into a pillow. If you are grieving, still make the pancakes. Do not let your kids see that you’re struggling. I know a lot of people will disagree with me on this, but I don’t care one bit. It is not your children’s job to take care of you. It’s okay for you to be anxious, it’s okay to be afraid, but your job as a leader in your family, your community, or on your team is to create stability for the people in your care and that’s impossible if they’re worried about you not being okay.9

In one sense, of course, Hollis is correct. It is not the job of children to take care of their parents, at least until they grow up and their parents become infirm. This is an agreeable truth that more parents should embrace. There are all kinds of ways that parents spiritually encumber their children that are unacceptable. If you are venting your spleen about your failed marriage to your children, you are wrong. It would be helpful to see that and correct course.

But in another sense, what Hollis recommends is deeply misguided. The offending expression is “fake it.” This kind of faking often leads to divorce and is, perhaps, why Hollis did not see ahead of time the dissolution of her own marriage. She and Dave both admit to papering over trouble in the interest of furthering their goals.

There is a middle way between foisting yourself on your children, so that they parent you, and being honest with them about the grief of life. It is a false dichotomy to say you must never come unglued in front of your children, that you must always keep it together, that you must always be the “leader” of the family, when words like “mother” and “father” imply something more noble and more complicated than mere managerial administration. The fact is, life is terrible, for everyone, and children must learn this. Moreover, you are not God, and your children should ultimately learn to trust Him for the very basic reason that you will fail in the most crucial way, by dying, though hopefully not when they are very young. The mistakes Hollis’ parents made in the aftermath of her brother’s suicide were tragic, but they have so clouded her vision that she cannot see the contradiction in front of her. Faking it and good parenting are mutually exclusive.

There Are Good Reasons to Fear Eternity. This bears out when she talks, at the very end, about her brother’s death. She was the only one home when he killed himself. She was the one to find him. She was the one to call 911. In that frantic hour, the thing that she most wanted to know was whether or not her brother was in hell. She writes, “I was raised to believe that if you died with unforgiven sins you went straight to hell. Since killing someone is a sin, the belief held by our church was that if you killed yourself you’d sinned, and since you couldn’t ask for forgiveness afterward it didn’t matter what kind of life you had lived before; you were doomed.”10

Some churches do teach this, although most biblically faithful churches teach that faith in Jesus Christ — not the sinfulness of the person at the moment of death — leads to eternal life. Mental illness is not a hinderance to entering the kingdom of God. However, Hollis goes on, in the days following the funeral:

A card arrived in the mailbox along with the dozens of other condolences, but this one was addressed to me. No one recognized the name or the return address. When I opened it there was a handwritten note from the 911 operator who answered my call that day. She told me that she was so sorry about what had happened. She told me that I was brave and strong. She told me she wanted to make sure I knew, for sure, that Ryan was in heaven.11

This touching anecdote is the only overtly religious sentiment in a book that is marketed to Christians by someone who professes to go to church. This is as far the theological depth of her work goes. If you are worried about heaven or hell, don’t, you will certainly go to heaven.

I find this answer rather ironic, if I may say, in a book about unforeseen trouble falling into the way of ordinary people. It is not a biblical answer, of course, but neither is it wondering or inquisitive. What really happens to a person when she dies? Is this life all there is? Wouldn’t someone want to know before the end comes? And yet Hollis is spectacularly complacent on the subject.

You Already Are Someone, You Don’t Have to Work on Yourself. Finally, the modern drumbeat about personal identity must make its way even into a book about grief and crisis. The gospel of our age — finding yourself and living into whatever that is — presses in. She writes,

Identity is who you are, and the most important lesson I want you to take away from this chapter is that you are so much more than the trauma you are living in, whatever that looks like. Your identity is just that, yours. You might have cancer, but you are more than a cancer patient. He might think of you just as a middle manager, but if your identity is a creative powerhouse, live into that! If you feel trapped by your identity because you know it is hurting you, break free and do the work to claim the truth that fits you now. No one gets to define you but you.12

I was bemused to find this in the very first chapter of the book. The most essential task, in other words, when something bad happens to you, is that you hold yourself up to the light of your own self to see who you are. If you let go of that, you will have nothing left.

Unhappily for this age, it is fundamentally not true that “no one gets to define you but you.” Reality intrudes — indeed already has in the shape of a crisis. More than that, eventually God will make His claim. He is the one who made you, and His opinion about you and how you should be is more imperative — especially for eternity — than any personal definitions you might cobble together.

Isn’t It Ironic? “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all,” writes Solomon in the second half of Ecclesiastes. “For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.”13 Solomon — the richest and wisest man of the ancient world — knew this better than any of us enduring the time of COVID-19, beset by anxiety and shocked to discover that a robust economy, democratic mores, and social cohesion are as fragile as ever. The only way to survive this time “under the sun” is to turn, as Solomon does, to the world beyond this one, to finally remember the Creator and admit His sovereign power and perfect knowledge.

Indeed, he has an answer to all the death, destruction, and wickedness of our humanity. He came to us. He took on our flesh. He went into our pit. He saw us, knew us, and did away with our single greatest enemy — death — by dying Himself. Any answer to grief and suffering that doesn’t include at least a sideways glance in the direction of the cross, especially one marketed as a Christian answer, is no answer at all. —Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.

NOTES

  1. Ecclesiastes 4:6. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
  2. Rachel Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Life Back Together When Your World Falls Apart (New York: Dey Street Books, 2020), Kindle Edition, 218–219.
  3. Augusta Neal, “An Extremely Detailed and a Tad Unnecessary Timeline of Rachel and Dave Hollis’ Relationship,” It’s Fine I’m Fine, September 18, 2020, https://itsfineimfine.com/2020/09/18/an-extremely-detailed-and-a-tad-unnecessary-timeline-of-rachel-and-dave-hollis-relationship/.
  4. The Rachel Hollis Podcast, “Embrace the Suck,” June 23, 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/150-embrace-the-suck/id1245763628i=1000479217002.
  5. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 13.
  6. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 200.
  7. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 177.
  8. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 128.
  9. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 131–132.
  10. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 212.
  11. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 214.
  12. Hollis, Didn’t See That Coming, 43.
  13. Ecclesiastes 9:11–12.