Monday, September 26, 2022

Alexander had a Terrible Day—and it's OK to admit that

Years ago, when someone gave our family a copy of Judith Viorst's classic picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, I looked at it askance. I could not recall if I had ever read it myself as a child, because the title itself went against a particular belief that was engrained in me:

A Bad Day? We shouldn't EVER say that.

At some point, I had absorbed the idea that it is wrong to call any day "bad." Every day is a gift from God, so every day is good--and saying that we're having a "bad day" is not expressing an attitude of thankfulness to God for his gifts. I took this line of reasoning to mean that I could admit to occasionally having a "hard" day, but I could NEVER admit to having a terrible day or a bad day. 

Unfortunately, this logic helped me cultivate an unhealthy view of emotions. If something sad, bad, or difficult happened to me, I would push it down, frantically looking for the gift and blessing as soon as possible. I needed to embrace the gifts that God gave me with a thankful spirit! I needed to practice gratitude!

Over the course of time, therapy, and some serious self-reflection, I began to realize that my longstanding way of dealing (or not dealing) with emotions was problematic for me. I started to see the benefit of recognizing my emotions with honesty and then determining what to do with that information. 

When I finally picked up Viorst's book and started reading it to my kids, the story resonated with me. While some critics of the book see it as a story which encourages whining and negativity, I don't think that necessarily is the point of the story.

In this narrative, Alexander is experiencing a fairly awful day: From tripping over a skateboard to being told that he wasn't someone's best friend anymore, nothing seems to go his way. As he lists off the horrible events that have befallen him, Alexander brings up Australia-a distant country which, most likely, seems far from all of his problems. Yet, as he closes out his reflections, he muses that: "My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia." 

With simplicity, this children's story offers language and a method for handling difficult situations. It also provides the perspective that bad things happen everywhere-and it's going to be OK.

Instead of trying to push down and ignore the bad things that are happening to him, Alexander acknowledges them (though I don't endorse all of his behavior in the story). He fantasizes about escaping his problems, running from the Bad Day, but ultimately looks to his mom's wisdom and realizes that he'll get through it. 

This story came to mind one night as I prayed with the psalms. 

"For my soul is filled with evils; 

my life is on the brink of the grave. 

I am reckoned as one in the tomb: 

I have reached the end of my strength"

Every single Friday night, our family prays these words of Psalm 88 as we participate in the Liturgy of the Hours together. As we offer this prayer, I am struck by how the psalms provide language for a huge range of emotions and realities: joy, grief, and darkness. Over the summer, there was a particular instance when we received some disappointing news. I felt upset about it, but as we prayed that evening, I was comforted by the words and rhythm of Psalm 88. The entire passage gives voice to lament and hardship as the psalmist cries out to God for help, and it gave words and phrases to what I was feeling, even if what I felt was not nearly as dark or despairing. 

There is no pushing down sadness and difficulty here; no frantic search for an immediate recognition of how #blessed #grateful #thankful we are. Instead, there is an honest reflection of what one is enduring--and a recognition of God's sovereignty. For no matter how bad things are, the psalmist recognizes that he can still cry out to God for help. And this darkness will not last forever. In fact, I find it interesting that the very next passage in the Bible, Psalm 89, begins: "I will sing of your mercy forever, LORD, proclaim your faithfulness through all ages" (Ps 89:2). 

Difficult things pop up in every area of life, and "bad days" can happen everywhere, even in Australia. I'm still learning how to walk the tightrope of authenticity, and both recognize the awful things and not get bogged down in discouragement and moaning. However, I'm finding it easier to strike the balance (or something close to it) by praying with the psalms. I've noticed that young children often use storytelling to understand the world around them, narrating scary or bad or sad events so that they can process them. I wonder if the psalms have played a similar role in my life. As I pray through these specific passages of Scripture week after week, I speak words that exhibit a range of emotions and experiences--and ultimately point to the sovereignty, mercy, and love of God. 

Through this regular practice, certain psalms have penetrated my heart and help me voice my frustrations, sorrows, and joys to God. While I still have a long way to go in cultivating peace in my own life, and would love to pray more from the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, daily going through Night Prayer is a step in the right direction. It makes me wonder, what could our communities be like if we all regained this ancient practice of praying with the psalms? 


  1. Great reflection. It is a journey to learn how to acknowledge the bad and the hard without letting it spiral into too how to look for the good and be grateful without ignoring or suppressing the bad and hard! I have looked to Our Lady of Sorrows and found encouragement during my hard times. I also remember we live in a sinful world so there is going to be "bad" things here on earth. God can and does bring good from them but it's okay to lament and cry and even be angry to a certain extent. I love Lamentations chapter 3 in the goes through all these horrible things happening and acknowledges them! But then it says "but this I call to mind: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness." It's such a great chapter of living out the hard/bad and good/gratitude together. Hugs, friend!

    1. Thanks so much, Laura!!! Maybe someday we'll be in the same place and I can give you a real-life hug in person :) And thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts-I think it can be so important to remember, as you mentioned, that we live in a sinful world...I've had plenty of moments where I am upset about things not being perfect or ideal in a given day or situation, but I can/should probably keep things in perspective and remember that we're not living in Heaven yet! I will definitely be taking Lamentations chapter 3 with me to prayer-that sounds like a fantastic passage to pray with, especially in the rough moments and "bad days" that happen.

  2. I like your thoughts. They remind me of something I heard today. I'm not Catholic, but today I listened to some wonderful talks from leaders of my church and one particular phrase stuck out to me: "Trials and even suffering can be part of a good life if they make you more patient, kind, and like our Savior Jesus Christ."

    1. Jenny, thank you so much for sharing that! Sometimes, I'll fall into the trap of thinking that I could do x, y, and z (all good things) IF ONLY I wasn't sick, tired, undergoing suffering, etc-when it is in and through those things that I can unite myself to Christ and become more like him...I think it's very cool that your leaders talked about this kind of thing today :)