In a previous century my grandfather died
Only weeks after my great uncle.
A few weeks later, my grandmother
Made a quick trip to the grocery store
And returned to find her house in flames.
Having lost her brother, husband, and home
In a matter of weeks, my uncle Skeet
(so known because as a child he was
No bigger than a mosquito or “skeeter”)
Tried to comfort his sister.
He was a country preacher with a small congregation
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, and he
Always turned to Jesus, of course, in times like these.
Attempting reassurance, he said, “Ain’t it wonderful, Sis?
This just shows that the Lord always watches over us.
No matter what, Jesus is always by your side.”
He meant, of course, that she was lucky not
To have been burned alive, but I sort of thought
The loss of everything she loved might have
Compensated for the joy of continued existence,
But people say I am just too negative.
In the current century, my grandmother
Eventually died just a few years short of
Becoming a centenarian, so I returned
To Livingston, Texas one last time.
As we gathered at my grandmother’s house
To mourn, one of my aunts complained bitterly,
“Well, we’re gonna have to fire our preacher,
‘Cause he keeps saying the BI-ble says to
Give our money to the poor. They can work for
Their own money like we did!”
Upon learning that one of her new in-laws
Was Mexican, she demanded, “Well, are ya
Legal? If you’re legal, it’s all right, but we
Don’t need any wetbacks in the family!”
Some see God where
Others see only
Pain and suffering.
I read in the news
About a lady whose home
Was destroyed by a tornado,
Except for a closet
She happened to be hiding in.
She called it her prayer closet
And praised the Lord
For sparing it.
She said, “My God is
Awesome! Shout somebody!”
I guess if I believed
My God just destroyed
Everything I owned except
For a prayer closet, I might
Wonder why God had forsaken me,
But we don’t all see things
The same way, do we?
I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut again. It is a bad habit I started as a teenager. When I began reading Vonnegut, I was a classic example of a depressed teenager, or at least that was how I saw myself.
Looking back, I realized I had many reasons to be sad. Extremely sad, even. A friend had died in a motorcycle accident when a car pulled in front of him in our own neighborhood, and then my uncle, who was 25 years old, died in a fire that consumed the mobile home he was living in. Of course, a few other bad things happened, too, and the world just seemed a little crazy to me, not fair at all.
My confusion was confounded by the fact that I would often hear family members ask one another, “Do you think someone is trying to tell you something?” They searched each devastating event for a message from God. If something bad happened, it was because we had done something wrong. At church, I learned that all the pain, all the trials, and all the trauma was part of God’s plan, even if no mortal could make heads nor tails out of the plan. I hadn’t read Kierkegaard yet, but I was told to take a “leap of faith,” and then I was thrown off a cliff of faith.
So, around that time, I read about Kurt Vonnegut’s unlucky sister. In the prologue to Slapstick, he told of how while his sister, Alice, was dying of cancer, her husband, who was to take care of their children after her death, died on “the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge.” It was bad luck—bad enough to make you feel a little depressed.
But Vonnegut always made me feel better about things. He said, “Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place.” Although I have received prodigious religious instruction and led a life full of blame, that one line has gotten me though many dark moments.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people tell me that bad things were part of some tortuous plan by some deity or other, I’ve heard that children are only on earth as a “loan” from God, and I’ve heard that God won’t give us more than we can handle. It seems to me that people routinely get more than they can handle. Many people die from stress-related illness or suicide, brought about by despair and a massive inability to cope with life’s tribulations.
Ah, but the people who didn’t survive just didn’t have enough faith to get by. The message I got from this was: “Be strong—or God may kill you.” If I had no faith in the purely accidental nature of bad luck that I learned from the Vonneguts, I am not sure I could have survived my life, which really only has the normal amount of sorrow and trauma. I haven’t been spectacularly unlucky, even by first-world standards.
Thanks to some of the interpretations I have heard of the meaning of traumatic events, I get a little nervous when anyone starts talking about making meaning of suffering. I’m quite happy to believe that suffering is just one of the vagaries of an existence fraught with peril. According to a paper by psychologist Robert Neimeyer and his coauthors, people have an intense need to “make meaning” after an extreme event disrupts their life narrative. Through a process of making meaning, individuals are able to restore a coherent narrative of their lives.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that most people believe the world has a certain moral order, and that people who are good will be rewarded with positive outcomes. So, when bad things happen, we will surely ask, “Why me?” This is a question Alice Vonnegut never asked herself, according to her brother, anyway. The horrible luck she had did not interrupt her narrative because her narrative was one of randomness and accidental events.
Regardless of what narrative one tells regarding the moral order of the universe, many people do see their own moral or spiritual growth as a result of suffering. Indeed, when we meet young people who are self-satisfied and callous, we often think that they will grow as they meet with grief and loss, and that growth will bring wisdom. It is good to know that our loss can make us better people, but I can’t think of a time when I would not give up my personal growth in order to have a loved one restored.
It seems somehow wrong, ethically wrong, to look toward loss as an opportunity for growth, but we do not seem quite so bothered by looking backward to a loss as a catalyst for growth. Herein lies some of my discomfort with focusing too clumsily on making meaning—it almost implies approaching loss by asking, “What can I get out of this?” Alternatively, it invites people to celebrate what they gained from loss. This, in itself, can create moral distress.
To be sure, psychologists such as Robert Neimeyer emphasize accompanying the grief-stricken on their own journey without guiding them down any particular path. People will, naturally, have to determine what their loss means and also what meaning they assign to life after their loss. If they fail to find any meaning, they may lose their lives all together.
In the quest for meaning, though, I hope we can accept that we live in a world full of hazards, and they do not affect us in any rational order. It turns out that some really awful people live rather charmed lives, and the purest and most compassionate people in the world suffer, though not always.
If we have the strength, we put one foot in front of another one more time. And, maybe, once again.
I’ve never considered myself a strict Utilitarian in the narrowest sense of the term, but I always believed that suffering is generally a bad thing and that relieving suffering when possible is morally laudable. I still believe this for the most part, but lately I see myself in a dilemma of sorts. I have rejected all arguments for the necessity of suffering offered by theodicists, for I do not find belief in God to be more plausible based on the idea that suffering is the product of love and mercy from a being who only wants to motivate spiritual development and love for the good in people. I would be more able to imagine a merciful God who neglected to create life at all out of concern that life would entail suffering.
Given the fact that life with its attendant suffering is here (and unnecessary, in my opinion), I find myself agreeing that suffering does seem to be an essential element in developing any sort of moral worth. When I’ve met people, usually quite young, who have never faced financial difficulty, disease, or loss of a loved one, I generally find these people to be underdeveloped. They also seem unaware of the basic truths of life. The lack of suffering in their own lives makes them indifferent to the suffering of others. While most people believe we can’t take all the problems of the world on our shoulders, we also believe it is wrong to be “too happy” in the face of pain and suffering, but it is our own suffering that brings meaning to our experience of the suffering of others. We can never know the pain of others, but our own pain can make us care about what others may be experiencing. I realize some people experience pain and remain stubbornly egocentric, but I believe those who never experience any pain are likely to be incapable of placing any value on the pain of others. At least, they are unable to develop a fully empathic individuals.
All of this is said really to argue against the idea that we should be as cheerful as possible at all times. An old movie asked what is so bad about feeling good at a time when gloominess was trendy. Now, especially in the U.S., we have banished sadness, even when sadness is appropriate. We rush to the pharmacist when we experience the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or even more minor life changes. We are attempting to deny the experiences that make us human.
My feeling on this surprises me. When I was much younger, I read many of the existentialist philosophers. I knew then that the brute force of one’s own existence could lead only to anxiety and, in the words of Sartre and others, anguish. I remember now that Heidegger would have us find an authentic existence by contemplating our own death, an experience that pushes the superficial features of life out of our consciousness. Camus would have us constantly justify our existence by defending our choice to not commit suicide every day. For Sartre, the happy people could not be said to even exist in any meaningful sense–just automata going through the motions of life.
When I think of what it means to love or care about someone, I can’t imagine this emotion without pain. (I must add that I wish I could write this without hearing the strains of “Love Hurts,” but so be it.) We love our parents, our children, and, of course, our lovers, and each relationship is laced with deep pain, fear, worry, and uncertainty. The joy we get from these relationships can’t possibly outweigh the pain, but we find it worth the effort. Perhaps the pain intensifies the joy. It may be that the more pain we feel, the more we love. The more we love, the more we care for others. The more we care for others, the less pain we hope they will feel.
I’ve led myself to a paradox I cannot resolve. And I feel vaguely peaceful about it.
When I ask what it means to believe in God, I am really being superfluous, because it is impossible to say what it means to believe in God without first answering what it means to believe. Stating it means to believe something is notoriously difficult. One hypothesis is that beliefs are thoughts about facts that occur to us in the form of sentences. For Descartes, thoughts that weren’t expressed in language were not thoughts at all, though they may be passions or feelings.
The first objection, though, may be that not all thoughts or beliefs are actually expressed in sentences but that they could be. For example, most everyone believes that a regular-sized automobile is larger than a normal basketball, but few people ever express that belief in the form of a sentence. It is averred that someone holds the belief if they would answer “yes” when asked whether a car is larger than a basketball. We might complicate things by asking whether a dog would believe a car is larger than a basketball, and it seems many dogs act as if they believe cars are bigger than basketballs, but they can’t express it in a sentence, even when queried.
So, is it enough to “act as if” something is true to substantiate belief in that something? Back to the original question, can we say someone believes in God if that person acts as if God exists? So, we might say someone believes in God if we see them praying, avoiding sin, or something else. On the other hand, we might run into serious conflict. Most people claim to believe in God and that God will provide a blissful afterlife. In other words, they express these beliefs in sentences. Their behavior, on the other hand, tends to reflect a general dread or terror of death or the afterlife. The behavior of many but not all self-proclaimed believers would indicate that they think death is the finality of life or the beginning of an awful punishment rather than a reward for a life well led.
Or, perhaps, these same people sincerely proclaim their belief in God, but their actions reveal a hidden belief that their lives have not been properly spent.