My own view of suffering

By Doug Muder

My own views about suffering are, like Kushner's, related to personal experience. I was raised by a handicapped mother, and for a little more than a year now, I have been participating in my wife's struggle with stage-2 breast cancer. At the moment Deb is alive and doing well, but we live with constant uncertainty.

My biggest difference with Kushner is that I have a more humble view of the human place in the universe, and the role of human judgement. I think we go beyond our station when we attempt to judge the universe as a whole, to proclaim that it is "livable" or "unlivable", "fair" or "unfair". Our role is to accept what happens to us and to do what we can with the possibilities that life offers us--not to judge that we deserved to have something else happen to us, or that we should have different possibilities.

Like Kushner, I also see my view reflected in Job. I think that what Job learns from seeing God in the whirlwind is that he has no place to stand from which he can call God to account. He is not God's judge.

I see anger as a natural part of the acceptance process, but, unlike Kushner, I think it is something to be gotten past, not something to cling to and justify. Anger is what happens when our denial is exposed. If we have ignored the possibility that our loved ones might die, then when we are forced to confront that possibility and plan for it, we will be angry. Misfortune comes on us at random, but anger is the result of our own error. If we could accept the world as it is, denying nothing, then anger need never arise--whatever might happen to us.

And so my God, to the extent I have a God, is not angry. A God who is with me in my anger would have to have been with me in my denial. And what kind of a God is in denial about the nature of his own creation? My God has compassion for me in my suffering, and deeply wishes that I would stop making things worse for myself with my denial. My God is always ready to rain grace and comfort down on me, as soon as I accept the reality of my situation and reach out for the help I need. But as long as I armor myself in denial and anger, grace has no opening, no way to reach me.

My personal goal is to reach unconditional acceptance--or to get as close to it as I can. If the world is random, so be it. If it is malevolent, so be it. I can impose no conditions. I belong to the world; there is no place outside the world where I can stand and judge.

Kushner eventually gets around to pointing out that "Why did this happen to me?" is the wrong question to focus on, and that "What am I going to do with the life I have now?" is a better one. I would give this point more emphasis.

I believe that asking for explanations is another way of putting off acceptance. It is a form of bargaining: "I might accept this situation if somebody could explain to me why it has to be this way." But we have nothing to bargain with. Our acceptance of the world is not something that we give to God or to the world. It is something that we do out of necessity, for ourselves.

After we have accepted our situation, then we may decide to look for causes or explanations, so that we can better repair the damage or prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. But this is an inquiry of a different sort--a down-to-earth, practical search for lessons to be learned, not a metaphysical crisis or a blame-allocation court.

The need to blame someone, whether it is oneself or God or some incompetent driver or doctor, is the number one symptom of non-acceptance. Blame of oneself is particularly destructive, and avoidance of self-blame motivates much of the advice Kushner gives, particularly in Chapter 6. What I would add to Kushner's advice is that the ultimate answer to self-blame is non-blame, not self-defense. Those accusing voices in our heads will not be silenced by arguments for our innocence. They only fall silent after we stop being interested in them.

For me, the practice of meditation has been a great help in learning to grieve well and reach acceptance sooner. From my practice, I learned that there is a way of letting emotions happen, without prodding them, inciting them, justifying them, or arguing with them. When I first got the news that Deb had cancer, and then that it was worse than we had been led to believe, I was afraid she would die, and I was miserable. But by letting my fear and misery happen, I have been able to more quickly accept the situation.

My own view of helping others through tragedy

When tragedy happens to someone we know, care for, or identify with, it is (to a lesser extent) a tragedy for us as well. To a lesser extent, we suffer all the same reactions that the afflicted person does: denial, anger, blame, guilt, etc. If we can't cope with these reactions, how can we expect the afflicted person to do so? When you are the victim of tragedy, and you are just starting to break through your own denial, nothing is worse than to be surrounded by people still in denial, people who tell you (because they need to believe it) that nothing is wrong and everything is going to be OK. When you are ready to give up your own anger, nothing is worse than to be surrounded by people unwilling to give up theirs. It is at moments like these that the victim feels truly alone in his or her suffering, no matter how many people are trying to be helpful.

And so, I believe that the first thing we should do for a person in distress is to cope with our own reaction to the tragedy. We need to make sure that we are not just piling our own neediness on top of theirs.

What I think we need to bring to a person in distress is acceptance. This acceptance needs to be of two kinds: First, that we accept the tragedy, and its implications for us, so that we are not an obstacle to the victims accepting it themselves. Nothing needs to be said about this, but there is a world of difference between sitting silently with a person in denial and sitting silently with a person who has accepted the situation.

Second, we need to accept that the victims are reacting to the tragedy as they are. They have their own process and their own ways of coping. Let them do what they need to do.