Monday, September 24, 2012

The Clumpiness of Suffering

Last week was one of those weeks where for some reason, ill tidings seem everywhere.   Both in my family and in my church family, there's been unwelcome news.  Any week that involves caring for sick dogs so loved ones can meet with hospice and online research to help deepen my grasp of that nasty little [fornicator] glioblastoma multiforme cannot be a good week.

And as I drifted through the endless media data-dump of the week, a few tiny whispers of sorrow sparkled darkly.  

Like the story of a local family, moving west for dad's new job, the pregnant mom and the little boys and the dogs in the car up front, dad in the back with the car.  At four am, that overtired semi-driver didn't notice in time that they were stopped for construction and plowed them all out of this mortal coil in a mess of fire and steel.

Like the embedded narrative in an article about missing children in India, the story of a shattered Indian man whose wife died in childbirth, with their infant daughter then dying of dehydration after a stomach infection shortly after, and now his cherished, only son has disappeared, abducted as chattel.

Lord have mercy.

I have never viewed suffering itself as evidence of divine punishment, not ever.   One cannot be Christian and think this.   Jesus said as much, and then he in his own life showed us the falseness of that way of thinking.   We are mortal creatures, woven up of dirt and water.  We live.  We die.  And both living and dying involve encounters with suffering.

Where I struggle sometimes, theologically, is with the peculiarly sustained concentrations of random sorrow that seem to afflict some souls.  They seem, for all intents and purposes, to be perfectly decent human beings, absolutely indistinguishable in intellect, wisdom, and spirit from the rest of humanity.   And yet woes befall them with great frequency.   Loved ones die, or betray, or abandon them.  Illness of flesh and spirit is a continual presence.   Poverty can be present, but a parade of loss and tragedy can define even the life of those seemingly free of material want.  It becomes a seemingly dominant feature of their entire story, the bitter thread that seems to give structure to their lives.

It is easy, I think, to chalk up such things entirely to some repairable spiritual failing.   It is easy to say, well, suffering can feed anxiety, hatred, addiction, cynicism, and depression, and those demons have a pesky tendency to amplify and sustain the dark cycles that cause suffering, driving us more and more deeply towards our shadow self.   There is some truth in that, without question.   Waging war against those pernicious critters in us can help stop those cycles.   Sometimes.

But there are plenty of souls out there who are free from those demonic force-magnifiers, whose lives are consistently touched by pain and brokenness.

Ultimately, my own awareness of my mortal limitations reminds me that we are part of creation, and as such, we're as vulnerable to the dynamism and imbalance of creation as any other creature.   Why did the wind concentrate slightly more, bringing down that one tree, and not another?   Why did that healthy young doe miss her footing, now limping lame and vulnerable?   Because that's what happened.

But as sentient beings capable of understanding ourselves and connecting more deeply with our Creator, our encounters with suffering and brokenness are different.   Faith allows us to face down entropy while maintaining our integrity as beings.   It allows us to cohere, in ways that seem impossible, when our entire world has collapsed around us.   It allows us to show grace, manifest mercy, and share strength with our fellow beings as they experience times of loss and weakness.