J Walking

J Walking


Thoughts on suffering, pt. 2

posted by David Kuo

Tonight my father called a cousin in Chengdu who, we discovered with relief, is fine. His reports about the incredible destruction at the earthquake’s epicenter were anything but comforting. So mangled are the roads that getting there with any help is next to impossible.
I’ve been in Chengdu, I’ve been in the mountainous outskirts where the quake was centered. And as the son of a geophysicist who, among other thing, specializes in earthquakes and has done work in Chengdu, this strikes close to home.
I don’t have much to add to all the words being penned right now about China or Myanmar but I have one thing to add. This blog from a Harvard law professor dealing with his own awful cancer. They all relate me thinks:

I don’t have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I’m supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it’s happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.
Partly, that’s because they aren’t hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the metaphysical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death “premature”?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that’s how reality works.
As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don’t—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don’t seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn’t so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today’s meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life’s lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.
The second response is simpler; it comes from the movie “Unforgiven.” Gene Hackman is dying, and says to Clint Eastwood: “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood responds: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
That gets it right, I think. It’s a messed-up world, upside-down as often as it’s rightside up. Bad things happen; future plans (that house Hackman was building) come to naught. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Why, then, are we so prone to think otherwise? This is one of the biggest reasons I believe my faith is true: something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists. Any good metaphysical theory must explain both of those phenomena: both the expectation and the lack of supporting evidence for the thing expected. The only persuasive way to get there, I think, is to begin with a world made good that was twisted, corrupted, bent. Buried deep in our hearts are hints of the way things ought to be; the ugliest reality can’t snuff them out. Still, that reality exists; it can’t be denied. Christianity sees that reality, recognizes it for what it is—but also sees the expectation, and recognizes where it comes from.
Bottom line: I don’t need anyone to tell me why I’m in the situation I’m in, and I certainly don’t think I merit an exemption from the rottenness to which the rest of the world is subject.
But I do need to know some things. Three, to be precise: first, that I’m not alone; second, that my disease has not made me ugly to those I love and to the God who made me; and third, that somehow, something good can come from this. My faith tells me that the God of the universe suffered everything I suffer and infinitely worse. Death and suffering don’t separate human beings from our Creator—on the contrary: those things unite us with our Creator. The barrier became the bridge: that is the great miracle of the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. So I need never suffer alone. Job’s story confirms that, far from rejecting the ugliness of disease and pain, God embraces those who suffer and takes on their suffering. Beauty and ugliness are turned inside-out. Joseph’s story and the gospels alike show a God who delights to use the worst things to produce the best things. That doesn’t make life’s hells less than hellish. But it does make them bearable.



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Donny

posted May 13, 2008 at 7:34 am


One theme seems to run through the human species throughout history. The desire to have things as good as it gets and the power to drive out of the mind that bad things WILL (ever) happen. Even the Mongols desired a better life, “the good things in life,” for themselves. Obviously no Mongol warrior thought bad things would happen to him in his quiet moments or, his war moments. What if Attila had Christ in his heart and formed massive “armies” to help others? (Didn’t a Christian type guy try to get him to think this way? Who knows what the Pope and Attila really talked about. Some Pope’s were Christians.) Wave after wave of good warriors sweeping across the world making other people’s live better? How much good could ten-thousand strong men (or ten’s of thousands) do to crumbling houses and cities, and suffering and hungry families? And seriously, the Gospel of Jesus, seems to give a guide to a reality where most of the suffering of human beings can be wiped away. And great thinkers have tried to duplicate this math, but run into human “natural law” stopping it. Ahhh, but Jesus in reality showed that it takes more than a human nature to truly desire good for others and see it through. But that is for another time.
Maybe, in the message of the Gospel, is a super important point: Stop and think for a moment without YOUR death prompting the contemplation. If we forget about suffering, or achievement, or needs, or stop dwelling on it as if we can really doing anything about it for real, we can see and hear the big picture easier then we are told by great people (or hucksters) we can. Would their really be violence or crime towards another person if every person stopped and thought about it? Stopped and thought about another person as being as important as ourself? Caring is a supernatural event. A miracle for real.
“I” don’t want to die, heck, “I” don’t even want stub my toe. (Which, is not a silly analogy in the Suffering Saga, stubbing ones toe can be incredibly painful and can cost one a toe for real. It would cost a Mongol warrior his life, or an Olymipc athlete all of his dreams. And even Jesus would have needed more than three years on His mission in Roman-Judea limping on a festering big toe.) I don’t know why I don’t want to suffer and die. Well, at least I don’t know why I don’t want to die. It also appears that “even” Jesus didn’t “want” to die. I’ve lived through suffering without any physical harm to my physical body. We (I) desire things that other people have and get. Everyone dies, “but” for some wierd reason I don’t desire that. Even when I say I do. Even though it does appear that there may be people that can get through life without a day where they suffer physical pain or discomfort, no one, except the insane or mentally incapable, “wants to die.” Isn’t the real quest of science (and science is actually just the desires of mankind with a definitive label) to do away with suffering “and” even death itself?
Death unites us all. Life is supposed to. Caring then is a supernatural event. God has given us our death to think about life. And guess what, we always think about the life we have lived, and the life we should live when we are going to lose both. Or even possibly lose both. And, as today’s quasi-modern world shows all to well, caring about others is a struggling in our “natural” human state. In life we rarely care about others “as we care about ourself.” The history of man is one in where caring for others is never really achieved by all that many people.
Today I care about a “Harvard” law professor. And ten thousand Chinese “other” people I will never meet.
Proof of miracles.
Miracles don’t happen naturally.
(Maybe the internet isn’t so bad after all.)



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Brian Horan

posted May 13, 2008 at 8:48 am


Donny,
Your alright man. That’s a really thoughtful post!



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Brian Horan

posted May 13, 2008 at 10:38 am


I suggest looking at Neale Donald Walsche’s post: “Why the World is the Way It Is” on Beliefnet.
The link is always a little lower on the Beliefnet Home Page.



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Larry Parker

posted May 13, 2008 at 11:15 am


**Job’s story confirms that, far from rejecting the ugliness of disease and pain, God embraces those who suffer and takes on their suffering.**
I thought most of the essay was quite convincing (and therefore comforting), but this rankled me.
It was G-d, after all, WHO ALLOWED JOB TO SUFFER SO LONG AND HIS FAMILY TO BE KILLED AT THE HANDS OF SATAN. Am I wrong?



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Phil

posted May 13, 2008 at 1:24 pm


Oh but suffering is a testament of God’s love for us, it’s a gift.



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John E.

posted May 13, 2008 at 1:40 pm


>>>>
Why, then, are we so prone to think otherwise? This is one of the biggest reasons I believe my faith is true: something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists.
>>>>>
The fact that you really, really, really want moral order to exist is not reason to believe that there is moral order.



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aquaman

posted May 13, 2008 at 2:04 pm


Donny, good points. You raise the question of “I.” For Buddhists, it’s the root of all suffering. To Christians, it’s the core of the doctrine of Original Sin– our selfishness is so profound that it destroys the possibility of connection to God and to one another. While Buddhists hold out hope of overcoming that separation through decades (or perhaps lifetimes) of spiritual discipline, Christians believe that only the grace of God can bridge the chasm that separates us from God and from each other. I’ve been wrestling with this lately, trying to come to terms with my profound selfishness so that with God’s help I might overcome it.
Larry, you’ve read the story of Job well. (It’s best understood without the later-added closing verses where God repays Job double for everything he lost– as though a person who lost five children could be made whole by having ten more.) The moral of the story is that theodicy is an exercise in futility; humans are intrinsically unqualified to pass judgment on God’s actions. Why did Job suffer? Why have calamities in China and Burma extinguished tens of thousands of innocent lives in the past several days? We don’t understand, and we won’t understand, because we can’t possibly understand. That’s the moral of Job’s story. Or, to put it more succinctly, “[stuff] happens.”
Peace.



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Phil

posted May 13, 2008 at 2:28 pm


It’s hard to see the story of Job as anything but just God being a total prick whereby He wants to make a point to this poor sap and at the same time be lauded for how great He is. I don’t understand why people of faith take comfort in the story when they’re going through a hardship.



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canucklehead

posted May 13, 2008 at 3:17 pm


The headline on the front page of the local paper yesterday (Monday) concerned a local huge energy company’s Sunday announcement that they were dividing in half to better pillage the Alberta Oilsands (boosting their stock prices was a consideration in there somewhere too, I’m sure).
Today’s front-page headline reads THOUSANDS DIE IN QUAKE. Talk about two different worlds!! Given the way North Americans doggedly worship wealth and affluence, I just don’t “get it” as to WHY consistently thousands die in places like Burma due to “acts of God” whereas “acts of God” in North America are comparatively small in terms of casualties (cf the mess in Missouri/Arkansas)?? Perhaps God is a capitalist, after all, so favors us. Or honors our “God Bless America” platitudes?
“I thought most of the essay was quite convincing (and therefore comforting), but this rankled me.
It was G-d, after all, WHO ALLOWED JOB TO SUFFER SO LONG AND HIS FAMILY TO BE KILLED AT THE HANDS OF SATAN. Am I wrong?” Larry
Further to Larry’s insightful question, note who it was in the Job narrative that called Job to Satan’s attention!! Appears Job was having a really nice day until God gave Satan “permission” to test him.
So, tell me, my Calvinist friends, what should observations such as these do to one’s theology of the sovereignty of God?



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canucklehead

posted May 13, 2008 at 3:24 pm


further to Aquaman’s perceptive observations re Job, I’ve always wanted to write a book on Job entitled “S**t Happens!” but probably nobody would publish it under that title, (altho come to think of it, I haven’t tried Moody Press yet!) I’ve noticed in preaching/teaching that when you strongly infer that “s**t happens” in the lives of believers, nobody ever seems to need you to clarify your point.



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Thinker

posted May 13, 2008 at 3:55 pm


Canucklehead, I would definitely go for a Catholic publisher on that one.
I do not know the purpose of suffering – I am thinking about those thousands of people in China, the hundreds of thousand in Myamar (sp), the young family in southern Missouri who were killed in their car during a Tornada yesterday, Aquaman’s little girl, my own child’s cancer and long term health issues, David’s tumor, the clinic in Uganda – there is something about awareness of another’s suffering that makes my humanity a better thing, that perhaps makes clear that we are created in God’s image. Today one of my most socially awkward students gave a presentation. One of those kids who eats alone, makes the wrong comment at every turn. The class – all of them – you could feel their care for this kid. They wanted her to do well. Her suffering and aloneness were theirs. It was a clear moment of knowing why such things exist. A socially awkward teenager standing in front of a class is one small thing, but suffering is suffering – we tend to think of it in degrees. The aura of compassion that responds – ah – there is where God exists for us all to see. I suppose God calls us to see it and respond to it.



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aquaman

posted May 13, 2008 at 5:09 pm


Phil,
Too many Christians believe that people who suffer aren’t praying hard enough, aren’t being virtuous enough, or otherwise did something (or failed to do something) to merit their suffering. It’s comforting to those who don’t suffer– by virtue of their (supposed) righteousness, they are assured that such suffering could never be visited upon them; also, it justifies their decision to separate themselves from the suffering of others. Few Christians would express this belief system so starkly, but it underlies a lot of mainstream Christian thinking, especially among those who profess the so-called “prosperity gospel.”
I’m not an expert on ancient Judaism, but if this type of thinking is prevalent today among Christians, in spite of Jesus’s example as a suffering servant, I have to imagine such thinking was also prevalent during the period when Job was written.
Understood in this context, the purpose of Job’s story is not to vindicate God (who requires no vindication), but to condemn those who would pass judgment on those who suffer. In fact, Job suffers precisely because he is virtuous; if he had been an ordinary man, God and Satan presumably would have found another subject for their wager. The outrageousness of the wager (which most of us would consider a literary device, rather than historic fact) serves to underline the unsearchability of God’s ways and the futility of judging God by human standards.
Why is this comforting? I can only answer for myself.
For me, it’s comforting to know that my most difficult questions have no answers. It’s comforting to know that when bad things happen to me, it isn’t (always) my fault.
I can’t count how many well-meaning Christians responded to the story of my daughter by saying “everything happens for a reason”– which, when you deconstruct it, usually means “God struck your daughter with this terrible disease to help you become a better person.” Job teaches me that I can confidently dismiss such rubbish as a misguided understanding of the Christian faith. That’s comforting to me, too.
I don’t expect that I changed your mind, Phil, but I hope you understand that there are more layers to the story than your (understandable) reaction that “God [is] a total prick.”
Peace.



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Doug

posted May 14, 2008 at 8:53 am


Canucklehead, Thornton Wilder wrote it already but called it The Bridge of San Luis Rey.



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Brian Horan

posted May 14, 2008 at 7:58 pm


“Tonight my father called a cousin in Chengdu who, we discovered with relief, is fine. His reports about the incredible destruction at the earthquake’s epicenter were anything but comforting.”
I’m glad your cousin is ok.
I believe that this world is the result of separation (i.e., the fall). God works through us to alleviate that suffering. Beyond that, I don’t think we can really find meaning in this world.
I’m amazed at the notion of intelligent design as a means to convert folks to Christianity.. Yeah, there’s incredible patterns, but among random activity patterns seem bound to emerge. If you read the works of C.S. Lewis, he even notes that the physical universe would incline him towards atheism.
Nietzsche has cutting criticsm for flower power/hippie trippie notions about nature. Nature is burtal.
Still consciousness peaks through.
I think we should look beyond religious conversion and hope to convert people to God. The most blatant activity of God appears to me to happen in our consciousness and in our hearts.
One book in particular I’ve enjoyed is “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold S Kushner. He has an interesting perspective on Job.
Jewish mysticism (remember the Jews are the forefathers of our Christian faith) in the form of Cabala has answered some questions as well. In this arena I recommend “The Secret Life of God” by Rabbi David Aaron. He presents some particularly interesting notions of non-duality on pages 91-92 of my edition.
Even still, I come back to the COURSE IN MIRACLES notion that this life is bad dream that we should look to turn into a good dream via forgiveness and love. Our position with God is solidified through grace.
Inside the dream we can enjoy things in a relative way. That’s appropriate.



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