One of the most poignant and useless and common questions I hear people ask when they face into their Worst Day Ever is “Why?” Why did I get this cancer, why am I dying, or – worst of all – why my child? I so rarely have an answer. There so rarely is one. Theologians tidy up the struggle under the heading theodicy, attempting to organize theories about why bad things happen to good people. (As if it’s okay for bad things to happen to bad people; karma’s a bitch, you know.)
My experience working with people – and student chaplains – facing into the Worst Day Ever has only deepened my agnosticism. The more I learn from each individual hell about the universality of pain and suffering, the less I need a creed, and the more I accept the simplest of ideas: We’re here to love, and limits on who and how are bullshit. We’re here to care and carry each other through our Worst Days Ever. Because, at baseline, the only promise we can keep is not to abandon or forsake one another.
Which is funny. This is one of God’s most famous promises. And the one God most notoriously seems to fail to keep. The story we tell of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is that Jesus dies feeling abandoned. (You tell me the effective difference between feeling abandoned and being abandoned.)
It’s a riddle. What does it mean for God living as Jesus to die feeling abandoned … by God?
Rilke said, “Live the questions.” Okay. Humans suffer, sometimes from random causes, sometimes from our own doing, often in ways we can’t understand. And yet, in our better selves we move toward the suffering of others. We seem to be wired for suffering with (com-passion). Our brains have special neurons that mirror the experiences of others, enabling us to feel what we would feel if we were in their shoes. These neurons fire in ways that enable us to feel some fraction of what others are feeling, and awkwardly attempt to accompany them in their pain. Because the thing worse than pain is hurting alone.
If there were no suffering, would we still move toward each other? Or would we each live satisfied in our own little bubble of contentment? Did the Creator – or evolution – entail that suffering would be the seed of love?
I don’t know. I do see there is something so all-fired important about this brief spark of life that something calls us out of eternity to experience it … that even God took a turn at actual life. And actual death.
Maybe suffering with is the only way to know we have lived, and loved.
Again, I don’t know. I am agnostic on pretty much all the questions.
What I sense is that I never feel more alive than when I open myself in all my inadequacy to being present with another who is suffering, and let Love be between us.
So, on this day when we blow out the candles, and shroud our hearts in remembrance of the day a great Love died, I will look for the suffering ones, and let my own suffering draw me near to them. I am told that’s where God is, anyway. It’s the least I can do. And maybe the most.