On Tragedy and Loss; and Thanksgiving

The U.S. has been affected by three hurricanes and a mass shooting in the last several weeks.  These are only the tragedies that make for news ratings.  There are countless, untold tragedies affecting individuals and their families that occur everyday.  Incapacitating illness, death, betrayal, economic loss.  Suffering and loss are grievous burdens.  They take their toll on all of us, especially if it is our loved ones who suffer and we can do nothing to alleviate their pain.

What makes it even more difficult in our twenty-first century is that we have lost a great deal of our ability to endure suffering and hardship.  Advances in medicine alleviate many great evils that have afflicted humanity throughout history.  The eradication of crippling diseases.  The prolongation of lifespans.  We are trained to end pain as quickly as possible.  A headache requires little else than an acetaminophen tablet and a glass of water.  In minutes the pain is gone.  Psychologically, we are not equipped to endure prolonged pain.  Microwavable meals.  On demand access to entertainment, on our phones wherever we are.  Our whims and desires met at a moment’s notice anywhere, anytime.  So when tragedy strikes, we are not equipped with patience and fortitude.

Because we are made in the image of God, and because God himself is a God of mercy, we are given grace to endure, to in fact, be transformed in our suffering.  But such patient endurance, the reception of the mercy, is, for us, a choice.

I do not have a theodicy to give, with regards to God’s sovereign will, his inexhaustible mercy, his eternal love, his unconquerable strength and power in the face of humanity’s darkest moments, blackest pain and unfathomable suffering.  I cannot tell you, with an ironclad and critique-proof logic how God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good, and that an evil man killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds more.

That is to say, I cannot tell you in ways that satisfy the demands of logic and reason.  But this should not be a surprise.  I cannot tell you with irrefutable logical proof that your husband or wife loves you.  We do not understand all the ways of a material universe, how do we explain persons?  And in the Christian experience, and by revelation, God is Person.  Just as there are realities and truths of human experience reason does not have access to, the mystery of personhood exceeds our capacity to grasp.  And God’s Personhood is at the root of the human dilemma of pain and suffering.

When we discuss tragedy and loss, pain and suffering, the why and the how subsume our discussions.  This is the language of theodicy.  We want to know causes, we want to know solutions and we want to resolve immediately.  This is right and good, and the source of our advancements in caring for those who are suffering.

What we are afraid to discuss, what seems monstrous and grotesque in the midst of such sorrow, is to discuss the what, or perhaps, the effect.   Because two different persons may experience the same type of suffering, and each changed and transformed in different ways.  One may, as we might expect, become bitter, angry, resentful, focused on the injustice and unfairness of the tragedy, the loss.  Another, contrary to what we might expect, becomes more patient, more kind, stronger in character, richer in wisdom, grateful and attentive.

For that latter person, does such a transformation justify the suffering?  By no means.  Evil, is evil.  We do not justify means by ends.  But it reveals the mystery at the heart of these matters, which is personhood, and the choices we make which create the character we become.

Aristotle spoke of these matters.  We are what we habitually do.  The things we do are responses to instances of pleasure and pain.  Those responses, repeated over time, become habits.  We become the habits we have chosen.  If our response to pain is various negative habits, we become those habits.  If our response to pain is various positive habits, we become those habits.  The more negative, and the more consistently negative, our response, we become less able to endure pain and suffering.  The more positive, and the more consistently positive, our response, we become more able to endure pain and suffering.

The Stoics addressed our response to pain and suffering.  In perhaps overly simplified terms, they spoke of what was in our control and what was not.  They spoke of appearances and realities.  If we choose to focus on the appearance of an evil, it causes our suffering to increase.  On the other hand, if we choose to focus on our response to the evil, it lessens our suffering.  What is in our control in the face of suffering, is how we respond.  We lessen the pain of suffering, by choosing a response that focuses on what we can control.

Christians, with the Resurrection at the core of our faith, have a focus for our hope.  We know that the present suffering is not the last word.  And for that we are able, by the power of the Spirit Who resides within us, to give thanks in all things.  By giving thanks we transform our experience of suffering.  By giving thanks we transfigure pain into hope.  By giving thanks we release ourselves from the bondage to the pain and the fear we encounter.  We are more than conquerors, through Christ.

As I say, this is not a theodicy to explain evil or justify God.  Reason has its limitations.  This is about human experience.  Love.  Choice.  Transfiguration.  Ultimately it is about hope.  Reason cannot give hope.  Not in any lasting way.  Reason’s partners, skepticism and doubt, will always undermine the tightest of arguments.  Hope can only come from a focus beyond the suffering.  From the One who transcends suffering.  And the pathway to that transformation is through thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving brings light into darkness.  Brings patience to urgency.  Scatters fear with love.

It is a difficult discipline, giving thanks in the midst of suffering.  But it is a necessary one.  It is a deeper and more lasting alleviation from pain than humankind can give.

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