I was eight years old when Back to the Future came out. (Fine, do the math. I’M FORTY.) I remember recapping the movie to a friend on what would now be called a playdate but at the time was just called being a kid. We were in my front yard, and I told her about the scene at the end when Doc Brown warns Marty that his kids are going to be assholes. But tragedy occurred in the recounting: I accidentally said the a-word. Aghast at my blunder, I ran inside and told my mother what had happened.

My reaction to that unintentional swearing episode reveals two things to me now: 1) I was a major dork who needed constant approval from authority figures; and 2) I was terrified of God. That terror was built on a heavily Old-Testament-informed view of the Almighty and his retributive nature. I walked around in near-constant fear of him, and not the good kind meant to convey awe or wonder, but the kind where a kid keeps score of her wrongs and lives in perpetual shame.

Good stuff. Too bad I didn’t stay there, right? I could’ve killed in a retelling of Job as one of his friends. I can see the pitch now: a modern-day Job, now a female — we’ll call her Jo — hashes out why bad things happen to good people alongside her (let’s be honest — a bit bitchy) pals Ellie, Billie, and Zoe in this humor-flecked romp through Uz (New York City).

Gag. Except also? Topical. It goes without saying that, around the time I was accidentally swearing, I was also interpreting the Bible a bit wrong-headedly: Job’s friends, for example, played out as the truth-telling heroes of that story. Just lump me then with the majority now — after all, two thousand years later, most of us scramble to appraise others’ suffering in a way that will place the blame on them, thereby negotiating our own path out of the same fate.

When news of Kate Spade’s suicide hit social media, Bad Take Central was, IMHO, defined by this: Money can’t buy happiness. Or the closely related yet even more sanctimonious “This is what happens when you don’t have Jesus.” (Because no Christian has ever committed suicide, see?) The loudest voices seemed to once again unite in an oversimplified, controllable narrative, its message being that if you are happy with what you have, then this tragedy won’t befall you. Implied: Get to work on those gratitude journals and SAVE YOURSELVES!

Days later, when Anthony Bourdain’s suicide became public, his mother’s reaction to the New York Times sounded like an echo of so many of the responses to Spade’s death: “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this… He had everything. Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.” But another narrative was taking hold within the same article. His heroin and cocaine addictions were mentioned. Colleague Andrew Zimmern said of Bourdain, “We shared a very, very deep feeling of wanting to get off this crazy roller coaster, but at the same time knowing that this was our work. The world has lost a brilliant human being and I’ve lost one of the few people I could talk to about some of this stuff. When I did see him, he and I would walk off into a corner or have dinner together and share our deepest, darkest stuff.” And Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet and former food critic for the Times, observed, “Behind that swagger, there was always that tortured shy guy.”

But perhaps the most telling quote of all comes from Bourdain himself:

“I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”

I find myself wondering about fear, and this sense of not belonging in one’s life, because, despite the current glut of flowery blogs and peppy Instagram quotes (not to mention best-selling Christian Life books), I believe them to be universal feelings. Job’s friends, self-help writers, and prosperity preachers would have us believe that we’re each just one list away from being our best selves and achieving our dreams. The Bible becomes an encyclopedia of guarantees: do this, and get this.

Yet dream-catching remains a business riddled with epitaphs — like that of David Foster Wallace, who, before he left us, shared:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debts do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really: You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Meanwhile in suburbia…one book published and two kids thriving and a happy marriage later…I swallow my Lexapro first thing in the morning and think about how both biology and misapprehensions can lead to inner turmoil.

There is a contingent — the Loud Ones, let’s call them — whose greatest pearl-clutching is reserved for the misbehaviors, for the not-falling-in-line with the message. I subscribed to their newsletter back when I was eight and accidentally cursing, and for awhile after. They would tell you, in their inspirational Twitter feeds and perfectly-filtered Instagram shots, or with their zero-tolerance policy on any side of an issue, that a life held between two lines will never veer off course. They are, after all, too blessed to be stressed. Oh how badly I used to want to be one of them — they always have the best shoes.

The other day my three-year-old asked me what “stupid” meant. “Where did you hear that word?” I asked him, my overreaction immediately piquing his interest — perhaps especially since when he grew frustrated with a toy a few weeks ago and shouted, “This is F–K!” I had to hide my face while I laughed. And maybe this, in a lot of ways, is what it comes down to: what are we most offended, which is to say most threatened, by? Is it by an accidental curse word? Is it by the ungraciousness of suicide or the unutterable pain that brought a person to that point?

I realize it’s not a zero-sum game: I can raise children who don’t throw f-bombs around and teach them not to call others stupid. I can mourn lives being ended in utero and children being kept in cages. I also know, though, that I am human and will err. I pray that when I do, it will be not in the self-help aisle but in the gospel of grace; and I pray that I fall willingly, helplessly into it rather than scrambling to secure my own safety net of kept rules.

The only redemption in “try harder” self-salvation messages lies in the future: we can do better tomorrow. Meanwhile, the gospel, with its Bible, full not of cause-and-effect guarantees but promises, covers all of time and inhabits both the now and not-yet. It doesn’t gloss over our pain but honors it by acknowledging its existence, and promises to absolve it — to one day wipe every tear from our eyes. Job aptly referred to his friends’ message as vain (27:12), as are all my best efforts when compared to the promises kept on my behalf. 

May I always be more offended not by my inability to keep the perfect law, but by my constant failure to see the grace of the One who died because he knew I wouldn’t.