How shall we then live? Responses to Tragedy

When I was a young girl I used to ask my elders: why our lives were seemingly so enriched (comfortable) compared to others?  Why did we have security, shelter, enough to eat, peaceful living conditions, etc. when others were living in poverty, war, homelessness, malnourishment, and facing life-threatening circumstances?  Their response was along the lines that “God has blessed us.”  That seemed to be a good God, for us, but what about for others? My young heart was troubled by this unfair God who was responsible for their suffering, and our blessings.  Were we somehow more deserving?  I did not think so.

In more recent years one of my Muslim girlfriends has told me “God must love you so much…” whenever I share with her some kind of hardship or trouble in my personal circumstances.  She goes on to explain that God sends trials or tests to those God loves, because this will strengthen them and their character – build them up.  I understood she meant it as a compliment or assurance – that for her it was a sign that God sees me as worth testing and building my character.

Another commonly heard expression of comfort in times of difficulty is “God never gives you more than you can handle.”   Really? I want to retort. Is that how the parents in Newtown feel right now ? Is that how Japanese survivors of the nuclear factory meltdown feel?  Is that how people recovering from the Oklahoma tornado are feeling?  Is that how the families affected by Iran’s last earthquake feel?  I seriously doubt that. I suspect they feel overwhelmed and are wondering how they are supposed to handle all they are facing. My friends living amidst war in Syria and those facing violence in Nigeria feel overwhelmed and cry out for God to stop their suffering, as do so many of us when faced with tragic & difficult circumstances. As a mother recently recounted to me – “When my son died at age 34, that was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I raged at God, I absolutely did not want to be facing that situation.  And somehow despite my rage, I found a peace that passeth all understanding [Philippians 4:7].  That is when I understood the presence of the Holy Spirit as a comforter.”

As an 18 year old youth I faced my own personal life-threatening tragedy and wrestled with the “God questions” in the face of what was happening to me.  Why me? How could God let this happen? Does God cause evil? Can God stop it?  Why doesn’t God stop it? Why not me?   As I adjusted to paralysis and a lengthy recovery – letting go of the many activities I formerly found meaningful- I concluded that peace in BE-ing,  when one can no longer do or have what existed before, was the hardest thing life asks.

When I learn of tragedies near or far, personal or involving whole communities, my first response is usually empathy.  In my own limited way I consider how life as they knew it has suddenly come to a halt, and they are faced with trying to comprehend what their new, unbidden, reality is. I imagine them struggling to identify what choices they have (good and bad) as they live one day at a time into an unknown future. I empathize with the chaos, fear, questions, multiple layers of grief mingled with newly focused gratitude that are simultaneously crowding their every breath and thought.  I consider how the early days of tragedy are all about survival and finding the surface where one might come up to breathe, so to speak.  How life becomes divided by that experience, with one’s stories being either “before” the event, or “after” the life-changing event.

Joan Chittister, in Called To Question, writes, “Only when we are ready to put down the pain, let what is gone finally go, and stop the fruitless rage, only when we forgo the folly of groundless fear, can we move on. But first we have to trust that the God who brought us to this point will also see us through it.”

Tragedy reminds us that we are creatures, not Creator. It is the great equalizer – no one is exempt, even those who can temporarily fool themselves into thinking they are secure and protected. Tragedy reminds us that we have to, can only, trust God to see us through it.  At the same time, tragedy reminds us of how inter-dependent we are on each other; how much we need one another to be able to heal and find restoration.  In a tragedy we discover how important are the politicians, meteorologists, paramedics, nurses, engineers, therapists, teachers, bankers, philanthropists, community leaders, volunteers, neighbors, etc.  We are forced to recognize our interdependence – the role each must play – for us to heal, for our families to cope and heal, for our community to rebuild, for a country to be restored.  In addition to calling us to empathy with others, pushing us to trust that God will see us through, tragedy gives every one of us an invitation, or is it a test?, to be “at our best” for the other, near or far.

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11 thoughts on “How shall we then live? Responses to Tragedy

  1. Dear Susan
    What you write moved me deeply even more after our conversation in the car last Wednesday.
    In time of great tragedy or suffering it is God empathy and our trust which is calling us to be the same way to others and it is what put us in the right path .

  2. Susan,

    I was especially drawn to this line: “Tragedy reminds us that we are creatures, not Creator.” This in particular rings true to my life experience, but I would add just a little more. Tragedy reminds us that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that our ideas of what the Creator is and how that Creator operates in our world just might be wrong. Tragedy opens us up to new, sometimes frightening, ways of thinking about God.

    In the end, tragedy is disruptive and challenging, but insofar as it helps us recognize our interdependence and challenge our views of God, it can be generative. Engaged faith lives within the that tension.

    1. Thanks for your insights. It is hard to notice in the midst of the suffering sometimes, but true, it *can* be generative. I think this is why Joan Chittister’s quote speaks to me so much. That if I can learn to trust that God will be with me in and through it, something new happens. Yes, my ideas of God/Creator expand (explode !) but so does my experience of the world, other people, including myself. We don’t know what we are capable of enduring, surviving, and thriving until we take each step to stay in the moment, (to choose life in the face of despair and struggle) and become present to each moment beyond the next as they unfold. All the better when we find other’s to enter into those moments with us as well.

  3. Susan – Thank you for your beautiful and compelling post. I have been thinking a lot about “suffering” myself lately – What is the purpose? What’s the best way to approach it? For me, the former question will always be a mystery that I wrestle with. However, through contemplating some Buddhist teachings, I have come to the conclusion that whether or not it was “designed” this way on purpose (I reserve judgment on that question), without suffering, there would be no compassion, and without compassion, there would be no true human happiness. As you pointed out, suffering reminds us of our inter-dependence, and in my opinion is it the very fabric that connects us, and those connections are what allow us to feel alive, fulfilled, and happy.

    1. Thank you. Yes, it invites us to practice compassion and find healing (life !) in connection.

  4. I have survived one of those moments, overcoming stage 3 breast cancer only to be left with other medical issues, for which I wear compression over a large part of my body day and night, spend an hour a day in therapy, visit multiple drs and take lots of meds. I suffer continuously from pain, swelling, fatigue and depression. This has been my life for the last six years. I really appreciate this perspective on suffering. I find it to be accurate in my experience.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Jan. It sounds like you have been through allot of life-changes already, and each day must choose again this new life you live. Courage and strength to you on your journey.

  5. I found this great talk by Joyce Rupp, that reinforces much of what we have spoken about above.

  6. Thank you for this nuanced and tender contribution.

    Two thoughts (aside from gratitude):

    1. Agreed, that tragedy divides time into the before and after. I have also found that this division (in my personal narrative) heals and fades with healing and time. In fact, I’ve found that it’s important, in my healing process, to de-emphasize the definitive nature of the event. (When I’m able.)

    2. Agreed, that tragedy reminds us of our interdependence! Is it a greater challenge to deepen the sense and practice of interdependence in communities which are relatively (or temporarily) isolated from regular tragedy?

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