A Reflection on Suffering

Stephen Mitchell sees surrender rather than submission in Job after he has endured his trials by the Accuser as well as the confrontation with the Unnameable; “Surrender…means the wholehearted giving-up of oneself. It is both the ultimate generosity and the ultimate poverty, because in it the giver becomes the gift.” (Mitchell xxvii) This is the kind of man Mitchell sees when he reads Job’s words at the end, “I have spoken the of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Listen and I will speak; I will question you: please, instruct me. I have heard you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Mitchell 88) Mitchell identifies in this a great humility rather than self-abasement.

Meanwhile Victor Frankl writes of his personal trial, which echoes Job’s, in the concentration camps. Frankl writes, ‘Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.” (Frankl) To Frankl it is not an act of surrender but rather an act of heroism, maintaining a spiritual freedom and independence of mind even in the most dire of circumstances. The possibility that one might not only withstand such suffering but to do so and still retain their compassion and dignity would seem impossible to believe, if in fact it had not been witnessed.

Mitchell writes of the dialogue between Job and God, that “In order to approach god, Job has to let go of all ideas about God: he must put a cloud of unknowing…between himself and God, of have the Voice do this for him.” (Mitchell xix) For Mitchell, this embrace of the unknowing is the critical connection for Job to approach God, yet for Frankl I see love as the very thing which he believes tethers us to the divine; that gives us a glimpse of our salvation. He writes, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets…The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” (Frankl)

It is this extraordinary gift of love that allows us to bear the unthinkable and endure the unimaginable in a such a way that dignity can be retained. As the world presses its brokenness in on us we can choose to answer with a love that was defined by Mitchell earlier, as a giver of a gift that is our very selves. “We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl) This, too, we see in Job through Mitchell’s perspective. Confronted with the reality of God and the great suffering he has endured, Job chooses to change his attitude from a lament that he was ever born into praise for an awesome God whose very character is beyond fully knowing for us.

Works Cited

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963. Electronic Excerpt.

Mitchell, Stephen. The Book of Job. United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987.

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Excerpt from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Some details of a particular man’s inner greatness may have come to one’s mind, like the story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.'” …

Vulnerability

I went on a camping trip with some friends a couple weeks ago, which I wrote about at that time. I wanted to dive a little deeper into part of that trip; to be vulnerable regarding what I experienced in that moment now that I have processed it more fully.

A few days leading up to the trip God was REALLY driving home being vulnerable and I was feeling so frustrated because I felt like I had grown a lot in that space. For a little background, I’d also been having some lung problems because of my allergies for about a month. All this happened leading up to me on a hike in Hocking hills. We were going to do a 3 mile loop but some of my friends wanted to add another loop (ultimately around 7 miles). I tried to dissuade them but I didn’t want to look weak in front of people I really admired so ahead I plowed, not mentioning to them that it already hurt to breathe. My lungs felt like fists clenching tighter and tighter, and this continued for maybe two hours. I got to the point where I’d lean my body forward and force my legs to respond by catching me. I continue to try to act like everything is okay. Mask the pain. I told myself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Then, suddenly, no more air. I see my friend beckoning to me and I can’t speak. I gasp and still, no air. A young couple passes me by and I make eye contact with the woman and wonder if she can see my panic.

This is the first time during the entire hike I actually begin to pray. It’s suddenly so quiet. I look up in awe at the tall trees surrounding me and I see spots of light dancing around me and I ask God, “Is this really my time? Will I really die from lack of oxygen surrounded by the very things you created that make oxygen? My God, where is your breathe of life now? I don’t have it. Help me, Abba. I need you.” Tears swell in my eyes and I’m torn between my plea to God and my desire, still, to hide my struggle so that my friends don’t see my weakness.

Suddenly, there is a woman in front of me, the one who had walked by before. She says something about also getting asthma attacks and my brain responds, “Yes! Asthma attack! I’m not dying.” I imitate what she does, following her instructions and slowly, deliciously, air begins to fill my lungs. And as I breathed in I felt not judgment but love from God, paired with what could maybe be described as a mildly disapproving sigh.

After a short rest and a very slow final climb, we made it to the parking lot. As I reached the car all I wanted to do was cry. To break down. To acknowledge the moment and all that came with it. But I locked it down, pulled it together. I laughed and ate Mexican, occasionally wondering if my friends now saw me differently because of this experience and if they would like me less because of it.

As I prayed about it later I felt how silly God thought it was that I would rather LITERALLY run out of air than tell my friends my lungs hurt. That we had talked about this and because I put my fear of rejection ahead of God’s call to be vulnerable with my community, I had to suffer and he had to send someone to teach me how to breath. Later I was talking to someone and they remarked at how lucky I was; that they had known of several people who had died from these kinds of attacks. That they were dangerous and should be taken seriously. It was at that moment I remembered a text someone had sent me at the end of May describing a picture they’d received for me:

…a picture of you rowing a boat with these really wide oars that were like fish fins so you had to do a lot of work to row but when you did you went far. He felt the Lord was saying you were in a season for the next eight weeks of heavy work but it would propel you far. Then on the oars he saw 1) 2) and 3), like there are three areas of focus and a small 4), like maybe you could do a little in 4) but 1.2.3 were the focus. The words behind those were self, health and safety…

I realized how much I had endangered my safety with my unwillingness to be vulnerable. After the trip I went and got allergy medicine and an inhaler and it was amazing the difference this made to my health and even my attitude! And so a big area that God has impacted through this is my health and safety, in learning to listen to my body better and to take care of it. But the third that came with it is my ongoing struggle with rejection.

I shared this struggle with my small group as well as with my co-workers, a moment of sharing my current “mess” that felt both exhausting and encouraging. I have known for a while that my greatest desire is to feel known, and not just known but to still be loved when I am known. This is also the thing I most fear, and the thing God has been working with me to overcome these last few months. Because of my background (particularly with my two longest running relationships), I have this undercurrent in my heart that whispers, “If they really know you, they won’t love you. People don’t stay for people like you.”

I know this probably sounds like a super depressing place to be but it isn’t, it’s just hard. I can continually remind myself that I am already known and loved by a King who adores me, and that if I remain authentic to my God and myself, then the rejection or acceptance by others will not influence the love I have for myself. And so, I am in this eight week season of working on the self, health and safety. Self, that I would become even more free of rejection and the ways that it influences me, making me an emotionally healthier person and leader. Health, in that I am learning to listen and respond to my body and what it is telling me. And safety, not that I would begin operating out of fear but rather that I would truly appreciate how fragile life is and what a blessing it is to be able to experience the moments I do. Lastly, within all these things I need to seek God and listen rather than believe that I can do this on my own.

More Than “an Animal”

My boyfriend, now ex, broke up with me the day before I closed on my first house. This particular house was a steal because it was a foreclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, a full basement and a 2 car garage which sat on a quarter acre lot. Located in a nice neighborhood with playgrounds, basketball courts, a Frisbee golf course and a dog park all within walking distance, I had thought it would be perfect for the two of us and his two children. We had been together for years, looked at houses together and then suddenly I was in this alone. In spite of all my doubt, I went ahead and closed on my house because of the sunk cost and the deal that I was getting. It didn’t make it any easier though; what had once looked like a home that would be filled with a family was now a big empty tomb where my hopes for our future together were laid to rest. Moving in was bittersweet; I was a homeowner with a place all my own but it seemed so EMPTY. It had been a while since I had a dog and I realized in this moment that finally my opportunity arrived. I saw a litter of puppies listed online through a rescue and figured I’d go get one the next day. A dog could be my companion and let me know if I had intruders. It was the answer my broken-heart needed. A puppy was a solution to all my problems (or so I thought).

When I arrived at the shelter the next day to see the litter, I was told all the yellow ones were claimed. I was also told that nobody had been interested in the brown one, and I remember thinking I understood how it felt. I asked to see it and I was soon holding a wiggly, affectionate pile of fur. I was sold, told them I would take him and not long thereafter I left with a puppy that stopped being an “it” and soon became my beloved Moose. This same puppy licked brown paint while it was wet and then licked my pale yellow walls, leaving tiny tongue marks all down the wall. He broke two cages and tried to dig his way through the bathroom to get to me when I would leave for work. He would also have accidents anytime I was out of his sight (out of panic and fear). This lead to me showering our first few months together with him stationed right next to the tub, his head occasionally appearing through the curtains to confirm I hadn’t somehow evaporated into thin air. He caught toads that made him sick over and over again and ate nine cups of food a day as he topped out at 120 pounds (well beyond the estimated 45-55 pounds I was told). At one point my vet advised me to consider getting rid of him due to his extreme behavioral issues but I couldn’t; how could I abandon this neurotic dog when he seemed just as broken as I felt?

And so I love him, deeply. He always sleeps with himself between me and the entrance and keeps himself between me and any new men we meet. He is fiercely protective of any children and always gentle. His greatest joy is being wherever I am, touching me, and it gives me joy too. He is the one I look forward to seeing at the end of the day. He quickly went from being a difficult puppy nobody wanted to my heart walking around on four paws. He has been my constant and steadfast companion, and I have been his. When he’s sick, I’m up with him. When he can’t get up the stairs, I sleep on the couch with my arm hanging off so we’re still touching. When he can’t get into bed and refuses to use the steps, I lift him up. In his old age we have arrived back at where we started in the very beginning. Some might see the amount of work and money I put into caring for an elderly dog and question it. Yet I know that there is no way I could repay him for the love, comfort, protection and healing he has brought to me over the years. I consider it a blessing to be able to care for him well in his old age.

We’re all Blind

“A Conversion,” by Martin Buber, was a difficult read. Within his writing, I struggle to discern exactly what his intention is with providing such a vague description of a moment in which he is having a rare experience with Mystery. He says at the start that “In the early years the ‘religious’ was for me the exception.” (Buber 84) However, what I believe we ultimately hear described is a conversion: Buber changes from one perspective to another. Where before Mystery was the exception, at the end of his work he says that, “I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens.” (Buber 84)

It is much easier to understand the difference between an “I-It” relationship (relating to another as an object, like viewing the world through the “arrogant eye” discussed previously) and an “I-Thou” relationship (relating to the other as a thou, like viewing the world through the “loving eye) when we examine it through the Raymond Carver’s “The Cathedral.” In the story, a man writes about his wife who has been friends with a blind man for around ten years. The man, this woman’s husband, doesn’t really want the blind man to come. To her husband, the blind man is summed up in his disability. At one point, while reflecting on the death of the blind man’s wife, he says, “And then to slip off into death, the blind man’s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I’m imagining now—her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave.” (Carver 4) His understanding of the blind man is entirely constrained by the “It” of his blindness. He imagines how miserable the man’s wife must have been at not being seen by her husband, never considering all the ways we see each other without our eyes.

It isn’t until he sees the blind man as a thou that he begins to understand that this truly and fully a man, a person with depth and capacity similar to his own. After his wife fell asleep on the couch, they began watching a show together on cathedrals. At times where it wasn’t narrated, the man attempted to describe what he was seeing to the blind man. He says, “Something has occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about? Do you the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?” (Carver 10) The blind man answers in contexts that likely did not occur to the man: he speaks of the number of workers it took, the amount of years, the generations of investment. He shared that he understood that men would start a project knowing that they wouldn’t see it completed. Eventually, the blind man asks the man to draw a cathedral for him, and places his hand on the mans so that he might “see” what the man is drawing though the movements. This is really the point where the man truly begins to see the blind man as a thou. He put all his energy into trying to describe through these movements what a cathedral was.

At the very end, the blind man asked the man who was drawing to close his eyes, but to keep drawing. Finally, at the end, the blind man asks him to look at his drawing and tell him what he thinks. The man, now, is not quite ready to open his eyes. I think this is an expression of solidarity with the blind man, of really seeing the man in his wholeness. We witness the woman’s husband shift from viewing the blind man as an “it” to a “thou,” and the weird and beautiful things that can come out of that transition.

 

Works Cited

Buber, Martin. “A Conversion.” Meetings. London: Routledge, 2002. Excerpt.

Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Carver, Raymond. Collected Stories. New York: Library of America, 2009. Short Story.

 

The Arrogant Eye and the Loving Eye

My favorite read this week was “Dialogue with a Rock.” It begins in examining a state that I remember distinctly struggling with in my teenage years: “As a self I am a cosmic center from which all lines radiate, I am the nexus where all dimensions of reality meet. To get in touch with my sensations and perceptions is, therefore, to know the whole world of which I am the center.” (Keen 28) This speaks in particular to that moment in youth where we are most aware of ourselves and often least aware of others and particularly how we affect them. I spent what felt like ages toying with the idea that everything I knew was based solely on how I perceived things; what if that was the sum of reality?

I slowly moved to the point of questioning how reliable my perception was and if it was possible that each living thing was as profoundly real and complex as I was, and we were all spinning with each other in this wild dance of perceiving and interacting. McFague wrote of this perspective: “The loving eye, on the other hand, acknowledges complexity, mystery, and difference. It recognizes that boundaries exist between the self and the other, that the interests of other persons (and the natural world) are not identical with one’s own, that knowing another takes time and attention.” (McFague 34) My wonder grew as I began to see, within the same universe, each life’s unique distinctness of being while we were all simultaneously interconnected with one another. When I leaned too far into this “eye,” I would find myself disabled, afraid to live for fear of how I might end up unknowingly effecting things. Thus, the conversation between the rock and the author didn’t seem so very far-fetched to me.

The rock (in the obviously imagined dialogue) questioned the author, challenged him to move from being an aggressor to being a creature of wonder. The end results was this response: “SK: When I take the time to look at you from different perspectives to welcome your strangeness into my consciousness I am confused. I see your beauty now and not merely your usefulness. But I still have a wall to build. Any suggestions?” (Keen 29) Finding a balance between these two eyes allows me to continue to rest in the wondrous and bewildering while also being able to act based on what I know.  I think this is a necessary tension that we must sit in. To use the eye analogy from McFague, we must see with both the loving eye as well as our arrogant eye. By seeing the world with both eyes, we create a field of depth. Trying to live using only one of these eyes would have us missing out on the beautiful complexity of life and causing irreparable harm not only to ourselves but others as well. Through the depth of seeing life through ourselves as well as the other, we can begin to live lives that embrace and appreciate not only our differentness but our interdependence.

Works Cited

Keen, Sam. “Dialogue with a Rock.” To A Dancing God. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. .pdf.

McFague, Sallie. “A New Sensibility.” Models of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. pdf.

A Recent Encounter with Nature and Humility

This past weekend I organized a trip with some friends to Hocking Hills, which I had never been to before. Ongoing allergies had been causing me some issues with my lungs but I ignored it. I was so excited to get out into nature and away from all the e-mails, calls and texts of daily life. I needed a little time to unwind. Four of us got there Friday night: two friends of mine who recently became engaged and a guy who I really enjoy being around and also has a lot of experience camping. I felt so comfortable as we set-up the tent and hung out around the campfire next to the river. There was this oddly familiar feeling in it, and I remember hoping that maybe someday this would be part of what relationship and community would look like for me.

Later the next morning four more friends arrived (bearing the nectar of God known as coffee) and we set off for a hike. A hike that ended up being over seven miles and the equivalent of 70+ flights of stairs. This hike was a high and a low for me. The views were beautiful, the caves were awe-inspiring. The big trees, clear water and massive stones emerging from the earth continuously dropped my jaw in wonder. But in the meantime, my lungs felt like they were two tightened fists. Not wanting to appear weak, I kept pushing myself and pushing myself until suddenly I could no longer get air into my lungs. I looked up the hill at my friend and I couldn’t produce any words. I notice a couple walking by me on the trail as I stood frozen and attempting to gasp. It was startling: in a peaceful sanctuary of trees I became panicked, while surrounded by trees that produced oxygen my body was steadfastly refusing to let me have any of it. I became acutely aware of how necessary breathe is, how delicious, how longed for. The couple I had watched walk by was suddenly back in front of me and she said something about asthma attacks. “Yes!” This thought pushed through the dominating panic and hunger for air. She put her hands on her head and I imitated her. She told me to breathe in slowly through my mouth and out through my nose. Eventually, I expressed as much thanks as I could. I began to do a little better and my friends, who refused to go ahead of me, went alongside me as we slowly finished the last bit of trail.

I was ravaged not just by this somewhat terrifying experience and my wounded pride, but also the beauty of it all. Those caves had been standing for ages, so many different forms of life crossing it’s cool stone. How tiny I am, how short my life is, compared to these natural titans. My lungs merely failing would end me now and yet the rocks, the forest, seem so enduring. The next day we went canoeing, which involved a lot more water than I anticipated. As we went down the river I paused here and there to drink it all in without the sounds being corrupted by my paddle. It was another beautiful day full of life bursting forth, and we played in the midst of it: we splashed, some of us swung on rope swings, we sat on rocks and sandbars as we talked, drank and snacked. Instead of staring at screens, we participated in the joy that is life being lived all around us. Perhaps I savored it even more because my lungs still hurt and I remembered how fleeting life had felt in those few minutes. I could do little other than marvel at the crazy abundance around me both in creation and in relationships with people I appreciate.