DEALING WITH DIFFICULTY
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on October 7, 2001
It starts out quite simply, as complex things can do. We rise one morning, at the usual time. We dress, eat breakfast, and set out for the days activities. And then, unexpectedly, something happens which changes our lives. Some life-changing events are happy ones; others are not. Some, like the events of September 11, are devastating, and result in great suffering for many people. We are not used to events that cause such widespread suffering; we do not know how to deal with them; they are not part of our daily experience. And so, trying to come to grips with what happened, we ask, "Why?"
The universe shifts when we ask "Why?" Things do not look the same after the question. Although we may go on with our daily routine, it will not feel usual anymore, because that "why" has intruded. Nobody likes to suffer. Most of us don't even like to see others suffer. We would like to think that we will lead lives with no suffering. We would like to think that we can keep other people from having to suffer. Yet, deep in our hearts, we know that everyone suffers to some extent, and even if they didn't, their lives would not be pure bliss, either. Still, when something terrible happens which affects many people, we wonder--why? How could such a thing happen? Where is God in all this?
This question has bothered theologians for centuries. Every religion has wrestled with the question of suffering, and none has really come up with a good answer. Christianity, for example, has always had a problem with suffering, because it ascribed all existence to an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent Supreme Being. Since it is tragically obvious that there is suffering in the world, the Christians were faced with two rather unpalatable choices: either there was an all-powerful, all-knowing God who was permitting suffering to happen for reasons we could not comprehend, or else there was a benevolent God who was not sufficiently powerful or knowing to prevent suffering. In other words, "either God is not good, or God is not God." God is mean or God is weak. Neither choice fits with the traditional Christian view of God. And so the question of "why" mostly goes unanswered.
The Jewish religion has a different attitude toward suffering. The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is full of examples of God causing suffering -- both to individuals, like Job, and to whole groups of people-- look at the story of the flood, for example. It all started with Adam and Eve, actually. And the message is usually that God needed to punish the people because of something they had done that was wrong; it was God's way of teaching them a lesson. This puts God in the role of strict parent, and is why Judaism is such an ethical religion-- Jews are expected to examine their actions and repent and ask for forgiveness, as they have just done during the Holy days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. But it provides a clearer, if not necessarily more satisfactory, answer to the question of why God would let suffering happen -- for the same reason some parents spank their children.
We liberals are not without our difficulties with suffering, either. The early Universalists believed in a loving, caring, compassionate God. They could not, or did not wish to, believe that such a God would condemn people to eternal damnation, so they embraced the idea of universal salvation - that everyone would be saved, because God would not want to punish forever the objects of God's creation. That is a wonderful thought, but it raises another conundrum when it comes to pain and suffering. Using the same logic that led the Universalists to conclude that a loving, caring God would not punish people eternally, one has to ask, "Why would a loving, caring, God punish people at all? Why would such a good God make people suffer in this life, if not in some possible future life? If we view God as loving, caring, and kind, how can we explain or accept the obvious suffering and pain in the world? Is God allowing suffering in order to teach humans to be better? Or is suffering something that God has no control over, or doesn't get involved with - it just happens.
The Unitarian view of the world, as it relates to suffering, presents another problem. The Unitarians, you see, had this idea that we could earn our heaven here on earth by being good and doing good; that there were rewards for certain behaviors, and consequences, or punishments, for others. So, while we mostly do good because our common sense tells us that people get along better together, and the world works better, when humans act in ways that are just, kind, helpful, respectful, etc., there is also a kind of set up -- an expectation that, by doing right and being good, we should not have to suffer -- almost that we can "buy" happiness by doing good. But even wonderful people do suffer, some very much. And so, along with everyone else, we ask the basic theological question: "Why me- why such a good, kind, person?" when we see suffering--especially when it seems unfair, or excessive.
The Humanists, of course, had a different approach. They ascribed no power or characteristics to a God, but rather thought that what happened in the world was a result of human behavior. They generally had a pretty positive, optimistic view of humans - feeling everyone had inherent worth and dignity, although in some cases it was difficult to discover. When things went wrong, and suffering resulted, Humanists tried to rectify the problems through education, research, better medical methods, conflict resolution, and so on. They felt that what humans caused to go wrong, which resulted in suffering, humans could also cause to go right, eventually eliminating suffering. This philosophy has merit - at least it gives humans the power and the incentive to try to alleviate suffering in the world, and it has resulted in great progress in the relief of suffering. But there are times, like September 11, when it is very hard to believe that every person has worth and dignity, and that humans are basically good and can become better. So there is still an unanswered question of "why", only it is not directed at God, but at people. How can some people be so evil? Why would anyone want to inflict extreme, unfair suffering on oneself and other humans?
A corollary to the general question of "why?" is the more personal question of "why me?" This is in many ways an even more difficult question, especially when the one asking it seems to be undeserving of any suffering. We have heard this question asked of our nation following the terrorist attack -- what has the U.S. done to deserve such an assault? Aren't we the most generous, exemplary, democratic, wonderful nation in the world? Why would anyone want to make us suffer so? And, as do individuals, we collectively are looking at our behavior to try to understand how someone could hate us enough to do what they did.
One answer that religions have tried to give to the question "why me?" is that we can find redemption through suffering--that somehow, suffering makes us better people. The claim is that there is a moral value in suffering; that it increases sympathy and enhances sensibilities; that it opens the spirit to new avenues of beauty and enables us to get in touch with our deepest feelings; that it strengthens character, purifies the soul, and brings more perfect happiness, once we have moved through it, because we are then more able to appreciate the good things in life.
I suppose it is possible that a certain amount of mild suffering does make us more aware. As it says in Romans, "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." Or, as is written in The Teahouse of the August Moon, "Suffering makes us think, thinking makes us wise, and wisdom makes the world endurable." Into every life a little rain must fall... and all that. But too much suffering is more apt to degrade than it is to ennoble; to make people mean, petty and suspicious. Terrible suffering, especially if it seems undeserved or unfair, or caused by evil, tends to want revenge, retribution, and restitution-- as we are seeing now in the wake of the terrorist acts. We need to be wary of dismissing suffering as character building; it may as likely be character-destroying.
I am not convinced that suffering makes us better people. Nor do I believe that it can be rationalized by saying, as Job's friends did, that the person must have done something to deserve such suffering. We cannot claim that the person was chosen to suffer because he or she was strong enough to endure it, or was the best actor and could therefore be an example to others, as Robert Frost's God did. Nor can we ascribe beauty to suffering and thank sufferers for making the world better, as Mother Teresa once did when she said, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor." And I also don't think we want to accept suffering because it will make us better people, somehow more moral - what it might make us is more sanctimonious, but it more often makes us angry or depressed or fearful. It is easy to glorify suffering when you are not the one experiencing it, but very few people feel its ennobling qualities while they are going through it.
Perhaps there is no moral or religious reason for suffering. Maybe there is no rational explanation for why certain people suffer a lot, even though they are "good" people, and others, who are not so good, and who even harm others, suffer very little. Perhaps suffering is random - it just happens, and it hits whomever is in the way. And, I am sure it doesn't just happen to good people - bad people suffer too, but it doesn't bother us as much if we can feel that their suffering was deserved, as some kind of response to their being bad people. But it is suffering, nevertheless.
In the face of trouble or tragedy, it is very human to ask, "Why? Why me? Why you? Why did this thing happen?" This is a question which comes out of the shock of what happened. It is a question we need to ask, because anytime some tragedy seems to be a terrible injustice, we realize our vulnerability - we know that if it can happen to someone else, it can happen to us; or if one thing happens to us, more can come as well. At times, the universe seems mean, unpredictable, and unjust. Loss and pain and suffering have little to do with our notions of fairness.
Why me? Most of us want to think we have control over our lives. And, because we live in America and have many resources at our command, we succeed most of the time. Now, our sense of safety is shattered, and we realize that even our comparatively comfortable lives are vulnerable. Suffering deprives us of control. Suddenly we are forced to face our limitations, and we wonder what went wrong, and why -- especially, "why me? why us?"
There are some problems with the question, "why me?" One is that it leads nowhere, it leaves us stuck in the question, instead of getting on with dealing with the pain and the situation and moving beyond the suffering. Another problem is that it is a question with no answer. Suffering happens, it happens to everyone to some extent and it happens without respect for a person's social status, wealth, goodness, or any other characteristic. Obviously, suffering is unavoidable; it is simply a part of life.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the question "why me?" is that it has behind it the assumption that there is a reason. That, in turn, seems to give people permission to come up with possible reasons and end up blaming the victim, as it were. The story of Job in the Bible is a classic example. We are told that Job was blameless - a model citizen - yet even his best friends kept trying to suggest that he must have done something to bring all this suffering upon himself. The same is often true of victims of crime, or rape, or domestic abuse. This house was robbed because the owner did not have an adequate security system; this woman was raped because she was wearing a mini-skirt; this wife was abused because she stood up to her husband -- it is not the fault of the person who caused the suffering! The victim must have done something to bring this on!
So, if there are no answers to the question "why me?", where do we go from here? I would like to suggest that we turn the question around and ask the opposite question - "Why not me?" To ask why we suffer is not fair unless we also ask why we also have happiness and fortune and comfort and love and all kinds of other good things. Usually, at the time that something bad happens, there has been a considerable time when good things have been happening. When we look at people who have been good, happy, successful, comfortable and so on and then ask, when they experience suffering, "why them?", don't we also need to ask why they were blessed with all those good things as well? When we ask, "Why was America a target; why are we chosen to suffer, we also have to ask why we have been so lucky and so blessed with peace and prosperity for so long.
Most of life is beyond our control; it just seems to happen. We do not choose our parents, our place of birth, our genes, our appearance. "Why not me? is as good a question as any. When we think that we could have been born in an underdeveloped country into extreme poverty, or to a drug-addicted teenage mother in a violent inner-city slum; we could have had so many trials that people all over the world have. "Why not me?" is closer to the mark, once we consider how many people live.
So, after all the good that we experience in life, when something tragic happens, and we suffer, we are only being initiated into the fellowship of suffering that spans the globe; that people around the world know only too well. And, whatever suffering we might be going through, we are still privileged, compared to others. Can we expect to live a lifetime free of disappointment and suffering? Free of loss and pain? The very thought strikes me as not only unrealistic but arrogant.
Yes, we want to be able to control our lives. We also want life to be fair. So when we suffer, we claim our right to justice and resent the circumstances that get in the way. We want to live in a society in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished; hard work succeeds and laziness fails; decency wins and meanness loses. We feel violated when life does not turn out that way, when we get what we do not deserve and do not get what we feel we do deserve.
The thing is, suffering has nothing to do with what we deserve. The idea that people suffer or prosper according to their merits is too simple, for it does not square with human experience. Perhaps the only reasonable answer to the question of "why" is that there is no answer -- suffering happens; it happens to everyone in some degree; it happens without any predictable plan. The real question is how we will respond when it happens. Will we take the maiming only, or will we win the blessings, too?
As long as the question is "why me," nothing changes. When we ask, "why not me," and begin to appreciate what we do have, things look brighter. When we can ask, "what can I do in response to this," life's doors reopen, and we can get on with living. We can begin to find the strength and the means to deal with our difficulties. We can move beyond just suffering. We can begin the healing process; we can change the world.