Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Suffering in Public

I hear the cliche now and again:  "There is a reason for everything."

I don't believe it.   Sometimes, actually, most of the time, there is no reason for anything.  

This is from Kristen Howerton regarding the suicide of Matthew Warren and the public speculation surrounding it:
Unfortunately, over the past 24 hours I've seen both individuals and news outlets posting speculations about Rick Warren, his son and their relationship, with what I perceive to be an attempt at figuring out what went wrong. People seem to want to assign blame to something or someone -- to unlock some mystery that would explain Matthew's suicide.

I think this is an awful but real human impulse -- we want to find a way to exclude the possibility that something bad could befall our children. I will admit here that I'm not immune to this impulse. When something horrific happens to another child, I find myself quickly cataloging the details, trying to find something that would make the tragedy exceptional -- some slip-up that the grieving parent made along the way that would comfort me from a concern that it could happen to me. I've done it when I've heard about infant death: I've scrambled to figure out if the parent was doing something wrong. Was there some rule they failed to follow that would assuage my anxiety about my own child's mortality? I found myself doing this as I watched the Sandusky trial as well -- quickly casting aspersions on parents of the victims for their lack of discernment. 

When we hear about grieving parents it can be so tempting to try to assign blame, because if they aren't to blame, then we have to grapple with the reality that sometimes, tragedy is senseless. This is an uncomfortable truth: awful things happen to children that parents cannot prevent. It's a truth so painful that we would rather throw grieving parents under the bus than face it. Searching for a familial reason for Matthew's suicide allows us to believe that if we can avoid their mistakes, we can feel confident that mental illness will never ravage our own child. We assuage our anxiety with the false notion that, if we do this parenting thing right, our child will be spared from ever struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. 

It's comforting, but it is a lie. A lie we fuel through speculation at the expense of grieving parents.

The inconvenient truth is that mental illness is an equal opportunity destroyer.
I am glad she wrote this.  I hope it is shared widely.   I was thinking along similar lines when I wrote my post on Job:  
The story of Job is not about Job or God.  The story of Job is about how a community wrestles with a crisis of meaning.   What happens when someone's suffering causes the foundations for meaning to shake?   Job's suffering is a threat to the community's meaning.   Suffering people must be explained away.   Whether this explanation is theological, psychological, or sociological, the explanation must serve to make us feel safe in light of the suffering of others.

Suffering without cause, that is suffering that could happen to me, is unacceptable.  I will invent psychological, sociological, or theological solutions to explain the suffering individual away and therefore retain for myself the illusion that as long as I do x or don't do y, I won't experience that same fate.  Job's friends try to convince Job that God must have had a reason for Job to suffer.   The readers of this wonderful story know the reason.   The reason Job suffered is because God was bored and used Job to make a bet.   Hardly admirable behavior for a deity.  

In modern terms, the reason for suffering is just as fickle.   People make up all kinds of reasons and suggest all kinds of causes for suffering.   Upon examination, suffering is not the result of sin as some Christians have claimed or because of desire as some Buddhists have claimed.  Suffering is not the result of karma as the New Age practitioners claim.   Suffering is not the result of failing to raise your children correctly or for failing to habituate to the seven habits of highly successful people.

Suffering is the result of time and chance.   It is better to be lucky than good.  That answer is hard to take.  We want to blame someone or something for it.   The reason we need to do that is the vain hope that suffering will not be visited upon us if we pray hard enough or believe hard enough or engage in some other pious activity, at least enough.

Job's friends represent the community confronted with a dilemma, a righteous sufferer.   That impossibility required them to blame the victim for his suffering.   They could not give up the idea of a just God.   They could not give up the idea of an intelligence, of an agent who will respond to their prayers.   To keep that belief, the sufferer must somehow be blamed.  His prayers must not have been adequate.   He must have done something wrong.

The truth is a bit more mundane.   Life is time and chance.   The best you can do is ride it out and be kind. 
I hope the Warrens can ride this out.  They have a huge burden.  Their suffering and their grief is disquietingly public.   My real hope for Pastor Warren and his family is that he doesn't let his public role as minister overshadow his humanity.   Truth be told, I hope the same for myself.


  1. I recall realizing that this was probably why many people, especially seminary professors whose children were the same age as mine, were avoiding me. Either I was the kind of crazy, negligent, and incompetent parent who would let her child die, in which case they didn't want to be around me or, much worse, I was a loving, attentive, aware parent, who sometimes did well and sometimes made mistakes, and who was just like them -- and that was someone no one wanted to consider.

  2. Thank you John. These words mean so much to me today. Derek