The Life You Never Expected: A Review

Jennie Pollock
Reviews 3 mins

Andrew & Rachel Wilson, The Life You Never Expected: Thriving While Parenting Special Needs Children (Inter-Varsity Press, 2015)

A book about parenting, written by a married couple, might seem an odd choice to review for the Living Out website. What relevance could it possibly have to readers who see neither parenting nor marriage in their futures? If you are able to take ‘parenting children with special needs’ as a kind of extrapolated worked example, however, the book has far wider relevance. In it, Andrew and Rachel Wilson draw on their particular experience to give all kinds of wonderfully helpful strategies for flourishing in whatever unexpected or unwanted life circumstance we find ourselves in.

Strategies for flourishing in whatever unexpected or unwanted life circumstance we find ourselves in

Andrew and Rachel grew up in Christian families, met, married, and set out to be history makers (p.47). Then along came children. Then along came special needs, as first their oldest son, then their daughter were diagnosed with regressive autism. Rachel’s dream of ‘spending [herself] on behalf of the needy’ across the world (p.38) shrivelled to the two extremely needy people in her own home. Andrew’s travelling, preaching, teaching ministry had similarly to be curtailed, with his opportunities now taking second place to the needs of his family. Those are the specifics. They are unique to that family at that time, and the Wilsons acknowledge that in the book’s introduction. But what of the non-specifics? What of the generalities that apply more broadly?

These are plentiful. While the particulars of Andrew and Rachel’s story are unique to them, the underlying emotions they experienced and the principles they practised in their pursuit of flourishing are universal.

The book begins with a meditation on Psalm 130, then uses the structure of the Psalm to shape the structure of the book. The psalmist begins with weeping, and so does each of the book’s five sections – each helping us to learn how to grieve well over the sorrow of our lives. Then the psalmist moves on to worshipping God despite his difficulties, and the book follows suit. After that comes waiting – looking forward to the promised end of all our sorrows with eyes of hope, followed by witnessing – testifying to God’s goodness regardless of our circumstances. Each section ends with an ‘And breathe’ – resources, funny stories, something to lighten the mood and help us decompress.

There are pearls of wisdom dotted throughout the chapters, with only a few that readers in different circumstances could probably skip. ‘Marriage on fire’ (pp.142-8), for instance, and maybe ‘Children as a blessing’ (pp.70-74) might be more painful than helpful in certain seasons of life. On the other hand, raising our gaze from our own navels and gaining insights into the struggles other people face can help any of us grow in empathy and maturity. Judge for yourself whether you think those chapters will be helpful when you reach them.

There are pearls of wisdom dotted throughout the chapters.

Others I wholeheartedly recommend for any reader in any circumstance. The chapter entitled ‘Individualitis and the Dung Gate’ (pp.46-50) is worth the price of the book alone, as are the tips on fighting for joy (pp.60-64, 74-76). The ‘Learning to pray’ chapter (pp.108-112) is also a gem. In it, Andrew goes for a walk with his dog, Xindel, gets lost in his local woods, and learns how to pray the Lord’s Prayer into his family situation. These few short pages contain an amusing story and an applied meditation that will bring fresh insight and encouragement for all, from this most familiar of passages.

Those familiar with Andrew Wilson’s writing or speaking will recognise the hallmarks of his style here. He has a remarkable ability to find an analogy, story or illustration that helps us see the familiar through an entirely new lens, and to give teaching that reaches the deepest parts of our hearts and minds while being light, witty and engaging at the same time. Rachel’s chapters are no less engaging or witty (often rather wryly so), and the lessons they contain have clearly been hard-won on the daily battlefield that her life could feel, if she let it. The book is rich with theological wisdom, but wears it lightly – you won’t need a theology degree to understand or appreciate it.

If you need help knowing how to grieve over dreams that may never come true, how to be thankful when your road feels overwhelmingly hard, and, importantly, how to remind yourself what is the most important thing in life after all, this book is for you. Dip in and out or read it cover-to-cover. Come back to it often. Its pages contain deep wisdom, and will point you to the source of life and hope.