Why children get killed. And other things we do not understand, or even begin to.

Posted: December 18, 2014 in Popular Culture et al, Religion
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

jesus-wept

One of the more difficult things for anyone with a brain to work out is “Why?”

Why do the most terrible things happen?

Why do a bunch of suicidal terrorists slaughter dozens of wonderful, bright, inquisitive, compassionate children and their teachers in pursuit of their goals, for example?

Why does a crazed gunman shoot people in a Sydney cafe?

Why do suicidal fanatics and car bombs regular reap their bloody toll of death in countries the world over, and in the Middle East especially?

Why does a father kill his two tiny daughters to “punish” his ex wife?

Why? Why? Why? What possible purpose do all these events hold?

Is it all part of some cosmic plan? Or is it an entirely random, meaningless moment in time? Disgusting in its mundanity.

Does it represent some titanic battle between supernatural forces of good and evil? Or is it merely a dull and deadening further example of the oft-demonstrated human capacity to divorce ourselves from the consequences of our actions?

Or does all this have no inherent meaning at all? Is life merely a lonely and ultimately meaningless road, ending inevitably in death, in which the only passingly relevant question is “How did you do?” “Were you lucky?” “Were you noble?” “Were you unlucky?” “Were you base?”

Or perhaps, as some have argued, “Did you have fun?”

What do you tell the parents of a child recently dead from cancer? The wife whose husband and father of her children is killed in a work accident? The three children of the woman killed in the Sydney siege, all under ten? What do we tell them?

We are confused. We do not know if the earth is spinning off its spiritual axis, or whether there even is any axis at all.

We are torn between the siren calls of both God and Man – we can simultaneously believe the immediate and compelling emotional evidence of the supernatural in our lives – especially by contemplating coincidences so unlikely as to be highly unlikely to be random – at the same time as we recognise the rationality of the agnostic or the atheist. On balance, we believe in God, but the balance is fragile and tilts both ways. Doubt is our constant companion.

suffering

If there is a God, how could he allow us to make such a total, violently messed up miasma of a world?

How could he allow us to run riot, seemingly incapable of managing our existence, seemingly unable to place compassion for our fellow beings – and the planet as a whole – at the head of our “To Do” list?

Why did he curse us with so-called free will – if free will is merely an excuse for wanton brutality and ineffectual governance of our planet? Yes, freedom to pollute with run off from our factories is balanced by the freedom to clean up our waterways, but why give us the choice? Did we ever ask for such a terrible series of choices, that we seem so incapable of handling?

Where is God, whatever we call him, while IS behead 22 Syrian soldiers on video – video taken over some hours, from multiple camera angles? Or when they slaughter thousands of civilians and shovel them into pits? Where is God when a US drone blasts into sanguinary non-existence an innocent Afghan wedding?

Where is God when a random act of weather or an accident on a road destroys people notable for their innocence and good naturedness?

In short, where is God – where is meaning – when the innocently good die young?

No, we do not pretend to know. There is no perfectly satisfying answer to this question which has occupied – bedevilled – humankind since we learned to think.

We are drawn, though, to one piece of irrefutable logic, from psychiatrist Viktor Frankel, who so movingly, intensely and validly sought meaning in his experience of the death camps of the Nazis.

Frankel – a man who could so easily have despaired – summed up the wisdom of thousands of years of sages in all cultures when he said:

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

 

Suffering is the one constant in life. We all have experiences that threaten to crush us – our dreams get shattered, our bodies fail us, we are submerged in our own incapacities and weaknesses – and most terribly, we all lose people we love to illness, accident, to seemingly blind fate.

And most terrifying of all, death is our constant companion. As we wake up every morning we never know if we will see another.

So what really matters, it seems to us, whether one has a comprehensively worked out religious perspective or none, is how we deal with suffering.

Do we allow it to destroy us, or do we resolutely continue to strive to live lives that answer our personal and communal driving moral imperatives, whether we source those imperatives from a religious book or from within our own rational view of how the world should be constructed?

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

 “In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.”

And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man.

Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke.

“What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.”

God or no God, it is up to us to work out the purpose. And how to survive it.

compassion

The world can sometimes seem overwhelmingly awful and dark. So this Christmas – this Hanukkah – this Milad un nabi … this … December? January? … the one thing of which we are convinced is that we should all spend some time reconnecting with those we love, taking joy in little things, making those course corrections that we need in our lives, and above all showing compassion for those touched by suffering.

Because this we do know. As we are all bound by it, so we all can learn to endure it, endure it even when it tears like a maddened beast at the very vitals inside each and every one of us, and we can endure it together, yoked together by the burdens of our common suffering.

alone

Suffering is the one thing none of us escape. That is the one lesson of history that is observable, undeniable, and in its own way, comforting. The lesson – the example – of our shared humanity, and our frailty.

The realisation that we all suffer. And – whether through the grace of God or the courage of the human mind operating alone – the almost simultaneously certain realisation that we can, and do, survive.

Indeed, that surviving itself is the meaning we all search for. Until, one by one, we lay down the imperishable, insistent, ever-present burden of thought, and go to sleep ourselves.

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Comments
  1. mlshatto says:

    The problem of theodicy, of explaining in human terms the role of God in the suffering we experience, is, as you say, one that has bedeviled humanity since rational thought developed.

    One of the most challenging courses I took during my years in seminary was “God and Human Suffering.” It was taught by a very wise and compassionate professor who was working on a book on the subject. The professor’s name was Richard Vieth, and the book title is “Holy Power; Human Pain.” It is no longer in print, alas, but I have sometimes found used copies on amazon.com or abebooks.com, and I have gifted it to a number of friends who have found it lucid, accessible, and helpful to their thinking through very difficult circumstances.

    I think Dick would be sympathetic to your reflections and conclusion, as am I. During this season of many holidays, may we all hold our family and friends tight, and don’t forget to tell them that we love them.

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    • Thank you, as always, for the erudition – and the compassion – of your comment.

      I do not, in truth, know why issues such as suffering and death are playing on my mind so much currently, especially as I really have little to worry about in my own immediate circumstances.

      Of course, turning on the news any day at the moment is enough to set any thinking person off …

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  2. gwpj says:

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    This has been on my mind for some time, and I can’t come up with anything better than what blogger Stephen “Yolly” Yolland has written here, so I’m sharing it with you all.

    Like

  3. Pat A says:

    A very thought provoking – and deeply wise – article. Thanks Yolly. I found this section particularly moving
    “The world can sometimes seem overwhelmingly awful and dark. So this Christmas – this Hanukkah – this Milad un nabi … this … December? January? … the one thing we are convinced of is that we should all spend some time reconnecting with those we love, taking joy in little things, making those course corrections that we need in our lives, and above all showing compassion for those touched by suffering.

    “Because this we do know. As we are all bound by it, so we all can learn to endure it, endure it even when it tears like a maddened beast at the very vitals inside each and every one of us, and we can endure it together, yoked together by the burdens of our common suffering.”

    We must take joy in the little things – sometimes they are all we have that anchor us here!

    I had realised that suffering comes as a result of us all having free will years ago [through great suffering myself] and that if we didn’t have free will we would be no more than puppets – so hopefully this is the better way, even though it is indescribably painful to so many, and for so long.

    (Mind you, that doesn’t explain the presence of sociopaths and psychopaths amongst us – a proportion of whom are plainly drawn to violent extremism – an academic I used to know said that when I asked him about the number of these people in the population, not that they were 10% but 25% of the population – which could explain the mess the world is in! Obviously not all of this group are axe wielding lunatics – or gun toting ditto, some are [thankfully] just lazy – but it is something that worries me – as an awful lot seem to be in power, smiling sweetly and counterfeiting emotions in order to remain in power – yikes!).

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    • Delightful to hear from you as always Pat. What really interests me about what you say is what turns some socio/psycho paths violent and some others. Some of the worst sociopaths I have ever met have been high-functioning businesspeople …

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  4. Pat A says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that some of the worst sociopaths are high-functioning businessmen – by a strange chance I have just been watching a repeat of Jon Ronson being interviewed at the Hay Sessions – and he said that capitalism rewards sociopaths like no other system. (I think that they can make the most of any system – I also think that a lot of them run for political office – another thing that explains the state of the world and politicians extreme ease with promising to do one thing when out of office and then doing the exact opposite of their promises when in office [mind you that also makes me feel that ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ is in charge behind the scenes!]).

    Martha Stout’s book on The Sociopath Next Door is interesting reading – though it can be uncomfortable reading (the comments on the book on Amazon.co.uk are really enlightening too). The estimated quantity of sociopaths in society rather depends on one’s definition to start with – so estimates vary a lot – but I do look at certain professions askance these days – and politicians, executives, etc etc etc are not ones that I regard with automatic respect – well, certainly not any more!

    Like

  5. shatara46 says:

    Quote from article: ” The world can sometimes seem overwhelmingly awful and dark. So this Christmas – this Hanukkah – this Milad un nabi … this … December? January? … the one thing of which we are convinced is that we should all spend some time reconnecting with those we love, taking joy in little things, making those course corrections that we need in our lives, and above all showing compassion for those touched by suffering.”
    This is so perfectly stated, I can’t think of anything to say except “thank you.”

    Like

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