Wednesday, October 13, 2004

How Do You Explain Suffering?

I was telling Larry that my view of tragedy is that God has a plan and he wants the best for us, so that, I hope, present suffering has a purpose, even if I don't know what that is, and there are better things to come. Perhaps this whole life is like the bad dream that we awaken from after we die. Its one way to deal with the fact that we're all going to die. I realize this philosophy is naive and derived from the viewpoint I picked up from my Reformed Bible study (or as Larry put it, its quite Calvinist). I don't think of my view as predestination (thats for Presbyterians and I'm not) but as some sort of complicated view of the intersection of the temporal with the eternal which we can't understand. But thats probably what predestination is. Its where I am now, I don't necessarily think its right, but its how I cope.

The Susan Howatch novels, which I adore, seem to be espousing the idea that creation is on-going and that we are all part of trying to make things 'come right,' which I suppose they eventually will, its just we get to decide whether we try to actively contribute to it or whether we work against it and against ourselves. I don't know what this doctrine is called.

The other night, my DH and I watched 21 Grams, which I'd been wanting to see for awhile. It sort of sounds like its a movie about drugs, its not, 21 grams is supposedly the weight of the soul and the movie is about loving and death and religion and hell and redemption. I highly recommend it, though its work to watch because the chronology jumps around (along the lines of Memento, but not as strange or as clear-cut). The basic story is that an evangelistic, fundamentalist Christian accidently kills a man and his two young daughters in a hit and run accident. The movie is what happens to the wife/mother of the victims, the driver, and the recipient of the husband's heart. Its pretty intense. It also has a lot of religious imagery -- I think I caught the most overt of it, though there is probably plenty more -- my favorites, the last names of the characters, Jordan, Rivers and Peck. By the way, the fundamentalist is (predictably) portrayed as a holy-roller and a bit of a nut.

Anyway, a wonderful scene, which I'd like to watch again, is when the driver is visited in prison by his pastor. They argue about what is going on -- why did this happen? The driver insists it happened because Jesus wanted it to happen (at least he's consistent, earlier in the film, he said he won his truck in a lottery because Jesus wanted him to have it). The pastor insists that it was just an accident. They argue, the pastor says that part of the problem is the driver's arrogance and he must pray for forgiveness, to which the driver asks, why do I have to ask for forgiveness if it was an accident? They yell, they both quote scripture at each other. The pastor screams at the driver that he needs to renounce his pride or he's going to hell. The driver points at his head and says "this is hell." I thought it was very moving. I'm sure I've mangled the scene in my memory, but I thought it was a very powerful scene, showing the problem with fundamentalism -- neither answer really makes sense. How could God or Jesus want such a tragedy to occur? How could he allow such a terrible accident? Is the accident a way of punishing us for our sins?

Maybe we can't know the cause of some tragedies, maybe we're not meant to know. Maybe our job is to figure out how to move along, staying on our path or finding it again.


Meredith said...

Dear Sparky,
I was intrigued by your post. The question of suffering is a timeless one. I'm curious: what if we didn't pick and chose how we were going to react to an event tradition or emotion tells us is suffering? What if we accepted each moment as pure, as holy, and didn't desire to change it? What if we paid attention to the present moment and enjoyed the rich quality of it, without judgement? I am not trying to be glib - only trying to stretch your consciousness. Notice your experience as a perfect unfolding, and accept emotions of joy and sorrow as simply two sides of a spinnig coin - in which you see and experience the shimmer and beautiful texture of your life.

What if?

Marjorie said...

Hi Meredith,
Thanks for your interesting comment. I must say that I shared your view about suffering when I was younger. I always savored the lows because I knew they were simply the opposite of the highs and that they were valuable and part of me. This started to change when I had children -- I can handle hardships that occur to me, but its harder to have this attitude toward my children. My post doesn't mention it, but Larry and I had been talking about the September 11 attacks. I'm not quite sure how to apply your suggestion to my feelings about 9/11 (I can't accept thousands of deaths as pure and holy). I'm strongly theistic, so I wonder how God comes into play.

I don't think people pick and choose how they respond to suffering, I do agree that they mainly follow their emotions. Actually, it sounds like you're advocating that we "pick and choose" to look at our suffering as pure and holy. There is nothing wrong with that, its just that I see your way as more of a choice and an emotional reaction as less of one -- I'm sure this says something about me that I can't get beyond my emotions, but I relish that to some degree, it makes me feel alive.

Larry said...

I want to get in on this discussion. First of all I would not call your theory Calvinist, Sparky; I would call it Pauline:
"All things work together for good to those who are called according to his purposes".

What does it mean? To me it seems to mean that we feel the pain because we are not yet made perfect in love. At some point we will begin to see how it all- I mean everything that happens to anybody will turn into goodness.

I have neither the virtue nor the wisdom to perceive that, but I believe it on faith, and it resonates in my heart. I remember when Paul said,

"I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. PHI 4:12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. PHI 4:13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

In that frame of mind all suffering becomes joy; and it's something we can look forward to.

You girls are a joy to me.

Meredith said...

Dear Sparky,

I am enjoying this conversation very much. I think it is a relevant and important dialogue. I also honor your difference of opinion, and I am glad you feel comfortable to explore and share it.

I have a daughter who is now 20, and I had another daughter who died at birth. I only share this to let you know that I, too, am a parent, and I, too, know sorrow. Additionally, I am a children’s therapist, and know well the suffering of little children. I also know that when I, as a listener, am comfortable enough with suffering to hear and be with another in their sorrow, be it a child or adolescent or adult, I provide a safe place for another to share this burden. It is often in the sharing, and the freeing nature of examining the feeling, that the intensity of the suffering or sorrow dissipates. It happens slowly, but it happens. I find this experience infused with Grace – God is present in these wonderful, intimate, rich conversations. In fact it is nothing that I do in therapy, except to be fully present and open my heart, that allows healing to occur. It happens because of the grace and courage of the person responding to their own experience, and being willing to open up. I am only the conduit, so to speak.

Why we have tragic events that cause so many to suffer – such as 9-11, I cannot answer. But I do trust in the graceful presence of God, and I trust in the basic goodness of people to help and encourage one another. In this, I focus on the presence of Grace, and the goodness of people, allowing the tragedy to be only the backdrop.

One other small concept that I find immensely helpful when considering the experience of suffering, is that mostly, the present moment is free of suffering. Look at this moment you are experiencing right now. Likely it is a perfect moment, with nothing more to wish for. Mindful of the beauty and perfection of each moment, we can proceed without fear of what is to come in the next moment. Small concept – huge shift in perception.

Thanks for listening, and for allowing this opportunity to dialogue.
Blessings and peace to you, Sparky,

Marjorie said...

Larry, and especially Meredith, thank you so much for your patience and gentleness with me. Meredith, thank you so much for sharing a bit of your background with me -- its probably terrible to say, but knowing that you experienced losing a child and that you hold these views makes a difference to me. I am terribly sorry for your loss, to even contemplate it fills me with sorrow. There is so much in what both of you have said, I have no pithy argumentative comeback, but lots of thinking to do. You have shown me a way and I'll be meditating on it for awhile.

Blessings to you both.

david said...

Meaning of suffering. Try a little topic why don't ya.

How does anything mean? The word "chair". How does it mean? There are a number factors which make the word "chair" mean. It has to be different from other potential signs/terms; we need to know the word isn't "hair" or "care" or "Mesopotamian". Someone needs to use the word to point to something other than the word; it needs to point to a world where there are chairs.

What is the meaning of suffering? It has meaning only if there is something in our lives that is not suffering. And someone needs to use that suffering to point towards something else.

Trouble with suffering is it has a way of transfixing us until it swallows our whole worlds and there's nothing left. Then we cry out, what is the meaning of suffering? When really it is suffering asking us to give it meaning.