I have long been intrigued by the issue of how people make meaning out of suffering.
Recently, I chanced upon two references that renewed my interest: ‘Holy Resilience’ an intriguing book by David Carr and an article by Elaine Pagels, a noted scholar of religion.
Both are concerned with meaning-making; Carr from the perspective of biblical scholarship, and Pagels from personal experience of loss and grief.
Carr and Pagels arrive at a similar conclusion: we usually assume that suffering is our responsibility, both our own suffering and even that of others, ‘It’s my fault.’
Carr argues that the seminal experience that formed the Hebrew Scriptures was the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC and subsequent exile, a catastrophic sequence of events. It shaped everything.
This crisis caused the Jewish people to doubt the efficacy of Yahweh. Then, invasion meant that your God had been defeated, if not destroyed by the invaders’ god; and annihilation of your god rendered the world meaningless and chaotic.
According to Carr, the Israelites developed a remarkable and unexpected insight to deal with this trauma. Yahweh, their god, had not been defeated; on the contrary, Yahweh was sovereign over all the nations and their gods. It was Yahweh who willed the defeat, as punishment of his people for their disobedience.
It was their sin that caused the catastrophe.
This ‘revelation’ was premised on the notion that belief in a violent and punishing god was preferable to the thought that Yahweh had not protected them. Assigning themselves the cause of their own suffering held out the possibility that they still had a measure of control over their lives.
Such agency and culpability were more attractive than helplessness.
I find that insight makes sense of much we read in the scriptures, but highly disturbing as an intuition about God
Pagels, in her article, describes the harrowing experience of losing her 6-year-old son after a long, terminal illness. Even though she and her husband cared for him more than adequately, after he died, she felt overwhelming guilt.
Reflecting on that experience over some time, she came to a new awareness: ‘As long as I felt guilty, I felt, well, it’s my fault; I had some agency in something that matters more to me than my own life.’
She realised that if she didn’t feel guilty, she would have experienced utter helplessness, and guilt was preferable.
Feeling guilty and responsible, even though potentially destructive, helped her survive the initial trauma.
How remarkable we humans are… and how utterly determined to find meaning.
Two insights occur to me:
Feeling guilty ‘works’ as a coping strategy for a while. However, when it becomes a firm conclusion, there is little room for growth and understanding. This is especially so when it is encoded in sacred scriptures.
Secondly, when disasters occur to others, many are quick to impute blame. This approach frequently co-opts God. Keep God out of it!
This distancing strategy lessens compassion and impugns God.
Making meaning is a profoundly important aspect of being human. However, discerning no meaning is sometimes preferable to assigning sin, guilt, and blame.