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.