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Why (Not) Me?

As I mentioned in the previous post, our church is spending the month of October in the book of Job, looking at themes of suffering, lament, protest, repentance, and the motivations for faith.  As it so happens, Job was the subject of conversation on the most recent edition of “Tapestry,” the weekly spirituality program on CBC Radio.  More particularly, the theme of the program was “coping” and explored the question: “How do we cope with the suffering that inevitably comes our way?”  A number of appropriately diverse perspectives were explored (this is Canada, after all!), each of which contributed to what was a fascinating program.

Rabbi Harold Kushner was one of the guests (he of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame) and was given the task of explaining how the book of Job helps us cope.  He explained what many scholars have noted about Job—that the prose prologue and the epilogue fit rather awkwardly with the more poetic thirty-seven or so chapters of bitter complaint.  The prose portions present a very simplistic and pious story.  Job gets crushed by Satan (God?) and responds with humility and deference: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away…,” “Shall we except only good and not bad from the hand of the Lord…,” “In all this, Job did not sin,” etc.  The much longer poetic section gives full and complex expression to the lament, grief, pain, anger, and confusion that most of us associate with suffering.

Not surprisingly, Kushner has much more respect for the complaining, raging, morally indignant Job of the poem that makes up the bulk of the book than the obedient, compliant, submissive Job of the ancient fable that brackets the poem.  I suspect most of us find it easier to resonate with the Job who shakes his fist at the heavens in the face of inexplicable suffering than we do with the Job who meekly accepts his plight—especially because we know that behind the scenes the very God who Job is so determined to do right by is essentially using Job’s life to win a bit with the devil!  The fact that these “two Jobs” seem so different is one of the most interesting (possibly even frustrating) parts of the book.  They don’t seem to fit. Those looking to the book of Job for help in coping with the miseries of life may find not comfort or assistance, but one more maddening contradiction to, ahem, cope with.

The most natural question in the world to ask when faced with suffering is some version or combination of the following: “Why me?”  “How could God/the cosmos allow this to happen to me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?”  Job asks all of these questions.  And, as many have pointed out, he doesn’t get very satisfactory answers.  God more or less overwhelms Job with a display of raw power and a reminder of the scope of God’s sovereignty   Might makes right.  Or something like that.  However one interprets Job 38-42, I suspect very few would say that Job’s questions are answered in the way that he had hoped for.

And yet, there is a question behind all of these unanswered questions that we rarely bother to ask or subject to sufficient scrutiny.  Where did we ever pick up the idea/expectation that the world and our lives within it ought to make any kind of moral sense?  Behind every question about suffering and justice is the unstated assumption that the world ought to work a certain way—that good ought to be repaid with good and evil with evil.  That pleasure and pain ought to be necessarily tied to virtue and vice.  That there ought to be a kind of moral symmetry between our behaviour and the quality of our experience.  That bad things shouldn’t happen to good people.

It is an expectation that is as peculiar as it is commonplace.  A quick glance at the world around us ought to make this plain enough.  Bad things are always happening to relatively “good” people.  Catastrophic tragedies seem to strike with maddening arbitrariness and unpredictability.  Disease indiscriminately strikes down the young, the old, and those in between.  The innocent suffer all the time and all over the place.  If one were to look only at empirical evidence, the question “Why me?” would seem laughably absurd!  “Why not me?” would be the far more logical question.  Or “When me?”  Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, we stubbornly cling to our assumptions that there is moral meaning to be found in the events of our world and the events of our lives—even if it means ferreting out “what we did” to cause our suffering.  As Kushner said at one point in the interview, “we seem to prefer guilt to chaos and meaninglessness.”

Where did we get this bizarre expectation that the events of the cosmos were infused with moral meaning and that they ought to correspond to the behaviour of these tiny little bipeds wandering around this one little obscure planet?

Of course, this question isn’t necessarily any more useful in helping us cope with pain than “why me?”  Probing the epistemological foundations of our moral expectations isn’t exactly the best therapy or comfort I can think of.  I don’t recommend querying a suffering friend about the logical grounds for their expectation of better things from the world, for example!  But I think questions like this can, at the very least, help to sharpen our protests and isolate the potential responses to questions around the meaning (if any) of our suffering and the resources available to help us through it.

Whatever else we want to say about Job, he clearly expected the world to make moral sense, even if the experiences of his life would have pointed to precisely the opposite conclusion.  Perhaps in our post-Christian, cynical, relativistic cultural climate, a good place to start when it comes to suffering would simply be to acknowledge and ponder our implicit expectation that the world ought to make moral sense.  And then, perhaps, we might move on to consider where such an expectation might have come from.

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