I have had several people ask me within the last 24 hours, some version of this question: Why?
Why did my friend’s daughter die so suddenly?
Why wasn’t the church able to find a place for my friend who was called, gifted, and willing to serve–such that she ended up working for minimum wage selling soft pretzels and slurpees?
Why was my colleague’s life ended just as she climbed from the desert of despair and was seizing the hope of new life in helping at-risk kids?
Why did my friend who followed the rules–eating right and meeting me faithfully in the gym–given the same sentence as one who lives on grease and flexes a muscle never?
It is tempting to try to answer the why with scripture verses (Where were you when I created the heavens, Job) and pithy slogans (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!) meant to encourage. But I think even the best of these responses is dishonest because the only truthful answer to why is the wholly unsatisfying: I don’t know.
I don’t know. Anyone who professes to know is ironically dodging the question. Because the question of Why isn’t so much a quest seeking an answer but a curse born of despair. Why needs to be shouted into the universe and allowed to hang there. The situations that cause us to shout Why are so deep and difficult that a prescribed answer to me seems disrespectful. The scene in Forrest Gump in which the now-legless Captain Dan raises his fist to the storm at sea and demands an answer from God to his Why is engraved in our memories because it depicted what so many of us periodically feel.
Those who understand the grieving process tell us that asking Why is part of a natural impulse that comes with grief. It is as automatic and irrepressible as the fatigue that cruelly does not lead to sleep, and the muddled thinking that will somehow not release the memory of the horror that gripped us when we first heard the news.
To try to answer the Why is to fall into a trap. Would any answer suffice, really? Would it take away the pain?
Because that’s what we really want. We want the pain to stop already. We want to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people and all things are unfolding as they should.
Except they aren’t. Young people shouldn’t die before they have a chance to live. Gifted people shouldn’t be forced to work in jobs that steal their dignity and crush their spirit. Making it across the desert of despair ought to lead to an oasis of hope and a new beginning. And taking care of our bodies ought to lead to long healthy lives.
And sometimes, these things happen exactly as they should.
And sometimes, they don’t.
One of the common theological answers is that God has chosen not to meddle. God is with us but doesn’t save us from ourselves. Sin has entered the world and wound itself into and under and through everything and every person and our individual and collective choices have made life tragic and difficult.
But even if that is true, it doesn’t answer the Whys that beg to the darkness for a different ending. Why can’t I see her again in this world? Why can’t I write a different ending to his life? Why does God think walking with us through the trials is a better plan than saving us from such maddening pain?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that this life is not just tragedy. I do know that people have epiphanies that lead them to solutions; that doctors work miracles that lead to unexpected healing; that tragedies often bring out the best in those who survive…after they move from asking Why to asking How.
How can I use this to do something that will help other people? How can I learn from this? How can I be an advocate so that others will be spared?
Maybe God’s plan is somehow tied to the shift from Why to How. For if we know anything of God we know that God is found most often in relationships. In community. In people who cling to one another until they are whole enough to do something with the tragedy they have endured.
If Why isolates, How re-creates.
Why is the despair with which we curse the darkness.
How is the light that leads us back to life.
I do not know Why. But I do know that when we begin to ask How, a shift happens in the universe. How changes the conversation. How tends to draw others to ourselves and a spark turns into a flame that burns with creativity and energy and leads to dreams that become reality.
And little by little, life begins again. Granted, it is never the same as it was before the Why, but it is often with even more purpose and focus and passion.
In the church, we call this process, Resurrection.
This is just a knee-jerk response, but if God swoops in and saves the day, what’s the point? It sounds glib, but honestly, why live in a cosmos with rounded-off corners and padded floors? Even when tragedy overwhelms us and creates an existential bitterness in our hearts, do you really want a universe where the circumstances are so benign that our relationship with the Almighty devolves into a pen pal correspondence- “Everything is fine, how are you doing?”
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I grew up with a very Mexican worldview: Life is pain and suffering, and the only way to alleviate is to help one another and have faith… and when the good times come around, CELEBRATE.
What an amazing article. I was going to pass over it in my inbox (so many things to do! feeling discouraged!) but having read it I feel a little more peace with the world and the realities in it. I would suggest that sitting with the “why”s (or sitting *with* the person asking why – as the author has done for/with me in the past) may be necessary before a person can ask how. Sometimes people outside of that intense, cursing grief can see a next step for a person, but no one can take that step for them. The first resurrection took time (3 log days), and caught everyone off guard when it came; so too with each resurrection that we yearn for.
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