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thoughts on responding to tragedies

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I am skimming the updates on yesterday's tornados in Oklahoma, coffee perched beside me, while making notes for my day.  I am a little embarrassed that I'm not more engrossed in the story.  Children missing, dozens dead.  Click.  I scroll down.

Any time there is a national tragedy I am torn.  I hate the voyeurism of 24-hour news, and refuse to support it or to subject myself to the over-the-top speculation and endless repetition of horror.  And yet.  How is it that families less than a thousand miles from me are drinking their coffee this morning, staring into the reality of life without their children, and I remain unfazed by their pain?  Am I comfortable being so calloused to that sort of awfulness?

I thought about this often during my husband's recent hospital visit.  For several days I honestly did not know how the rest of my life would look.  The reality of raising four children under six years old, caring for a disabled husband, and finding a means of supporting all of us was just within my grasp.  It was impossible to know if his accident would be a blip on the radar, just another near miss in our life together, or if it would be a defining moment, marking the entrance into a life none of us ever thought possible.  After leaving the hospital one night I was in line to order my burrito, and I started crying.  I was exhausted and overwhelmed.  It was an inconvenient time to feel anything, but they were the sort of tears that, once they start, cannot be stifled.  The guy behind the counter did not notice, or pretended not to notice.  The woman in front of me stared at her phone.  There was nothing they could do, and I really did not want them to try.  This thing was happening in my life while in front of me the guy's shift was up in twenty minutes.  That's the way life goes.

How do we balance it?  We can't carry the burden of every pain - we'll suffocate under the weight.  But to stare, unmoved, while someone suffers in front of us makes both us and them less than human.  Over and over in Scripture people asked Jesus why terrible things happen - was it sin that caused a baby to be born blind?  Was it judgment that caused a tower to fall?  And honestly He never gave the kind of answer I would have wanted from Him.  Sometimes He healed, sometimes He didn't.  He allowed John - his cousin and closest ally - to have his head cut off, and when John doubted Jesus, His only response was, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."  Jesus stared into human suffering, and though his heart was soft to it, He did nothing to prevent it, nor did he deny its power.

How do we follow Him as we watch others in pain?  In national tragedy and in personal ones, how do we balance the knowledge of suffering with love and hope and the very real fact that hope is not always realized on Earth?  And where does all of that fit into our culture, with its consumeristic voyeurism and lack of humanity?  How do we offer dignity and mercy, without feeding the consumerism or buckling under the weight of knowledge?

1 comment:

  1. I don't have any coherent comments (and will just be thinking out loud here) but our American culture is very adept at turning away and anesthetizing ourselves from suffering. And when we can't turn away, we make it about the person or about God. Either the person has done something to deserve or perpetuate such a crap hand, or it's a failure or character flaw of God. Rare is the one who stands with people in face of suffering and is just present with love in the mystery.

    (And I don't think that we were physiologically built to take in all the suffering we are now privy to given technological advances. Especially in images. But that is another story. Without tv/computers, I might have read about a tornado in another land, but I would never see devastation day after day as stories around the world are swapped via our endless connections.)

    One particularly difficult night in my own valley, I was in tremendous pain and I had the realization that I didn't know such pain existed before. I mean obviously I knew people suffered and were in various types of pain in this world - but that it actually felt that awful, I didn't realize.
    I remembered being at the bedside of one dying who said, "No one should have to feel like this." Her words came reeling to life.
    The depths of what is allowed was surprising. I couldn't fathom how people were going about their business that night watching reality tv and I was crying out to God and in a place I didn't know existed. And then the realization came that this much pain has been in the world all this time, and what have I done to relieve it for others?

    It is mind boggling in the midst of that place to imagine that other people are going about their business completely unaware of this underside in life. They turn away. We just don't want to know. People cannot stay inoculated and safe and in control if they face the reality that they really are not immune, that a defining moment can strike even them at any time. And for it to not be tied to a character flaw or sin. Shit just happens. (pardon, but there really wasn't a better noun I could think of.)

    Now your question at the end, how do we offer dignity and mercy, without buckling under the weight of knowledge, that is a great question. For me right now, it centers on hope. This world is always changing - one of the things I love about nature in this valley - it is a constant reminder that things change. They heal. Spring comes after winter. Life gets better. (Which is not the absence of death.)

    It isn't exegesis, but Jesus' not interfering when John was beheaded is not a slight to me. "Jesus stared into human suffering, and though his heart was soft to it, He did nothing to prevent it, nor did he deny its power." Could it be that Jesus stared into human suffering, his heart was soft to it, and he delivered John by allowing a swift and quick escape from this place? I mean, beheading is a pretty swift way to go. Can Jesus be expected to save John every time death and persecution came near, no...he had to die sometime. So do I put Jesus on the hook for not saving him in his 30s, but it would have been okay if he didn't intervene when he was 100 and on a more traditional death bed. John's physical suffering was limited, and his questions were answered in short order on the other side. (Maybe not by "answers" but by love itself.) This is why I shut my mouth right now when people discuss their displeasure when praying for healing and the person dies. Death is not our enemy - I can think of no better healing for someone than to depart this planet, to be free of pain and suffering, and to be in more direct union with God. But ask me about it when I'm the one making your burrito and my shift is over in 20 minutes and I get to go home to Mark and the rest of the day is our oyster. Ask me outside of the valley and perhaps I'll shift back to amnesia.

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