Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dear Sugar

In my last post I was wrestling with what I believe.  I'm a "Why?" kind of person so when awful things happen, my pattern is to try and figure them out as if there's some "right" answer that could possibly explain tragic circumstances.  I know it's just that I'm afraid and trying to feel some small bit of control over situations in which I'm powerless. I know I'm just trying to avoid the reality that sometimes life sucks.

A friend recently experienced an unimaginable  loss.  She's handling it with grace.  Me, not so much.  I'm angry and when I'm angry I push away.  Hard.  (my apologies to Sunshine and Happiness.)  When painful things happen I intellectualize to not have to feel.  I retreat into my head and I start thinking. As always, this is a bad, BAD, very bad thing.  

Here's what Sunshine and Happiness says when bad things happen and I get angry and all up in my head,  " Hello, honey?  It's not about you."

Despite S&H's wisdom, for the past few days I've not only been up in my head but also all over Google and Facebook.  That's because I find that playing on the Internet is a nifty way to not  have to feel stuff.   While avoiding my feelings I found a link to a FB page called Grief Beyond Belief, a brand new site that provides faith-free support for non-religious people grieving the death of a loved one.  It was there that I found a link to the following advice column:

Dear Sugar

 I’m writing this from my little couch/bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Egelston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. My husband and I just found out that our 6-month old daughter, Emma, has a tumor and she is having brain surgery tomorrow. I am scared that I will lose her. I’m scared she could be paralyzed or her development will be messed up and she will have a hard life. I’m scared they will find out the tumor is cancerous and she will need chemo. She’s only a little baby.People have poured all their thoughts and prayers into us right now but to be honest, God is farthest from my mind. I’ve never been super religious but now I find myself doubting His existence more than ever. If there were a God why would he let my little girl have to have possibly life threatening surgery, Sugar? I never in a million years thought that my husband and I would be in this situation.

I want to ask you to pray and all your reader’s to pray, to a God maybe I’m not sure I even believe in anymore. Pray that my baby will be okay. And that we can walk away from this and forget it even happened. I have written you before about different things, which now seem so stupid and silly. I just want to get through this with my husband and daughter and look back and thank God that everything is okay. I want to believe in Him and I want to believe all the prayers being said for us are working.


Dear Abbie,

I know everyone reading these words shares my relief that Emma came through her surgery so well. I’m sorry you’ve had to endure such a frightful experience. I hope that the worst of it is over and that you will be able to “walk away from this,” as you put it, and to keep walking—far and fast—into a future that does not contain the words tumorand surgery and cancer. I agonized about whether to publish your letter. Not because it isn’t worthy of a reply—your situation is as serious as it gets and your doubts about your faith in God are profound and shared by many. But I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell I thought I was in daring to address your question. I wonder that often while writing this column, but I wondered it harder when it came to your letter. I’m not a chaplain. I don’t know squat about God. I don’t even believe in God. And I believe less in speaking of God in a public forum where I’m very likely to be hammered for my beliefs.  Yet here I am because there I was, finding it impossible to get your letter out of my head.

Nearly two years ago I took my children to the Christmas pageant at the big Unitarian Church in our city. The pageant was to be a reenactment of the birth of Jesus. I took my kids as a way to begin to educate them about the non-Santa history of the holiday. Not as religious indoctrination, but as a history lesson.  
Who is Jesus? they asked from the back seat of the car as we drove to the show, after I’d explained to them what we were about to see. They were four and nearly six at the time. They’d heard about Jesus in glimmers before, but now they wanted to know everything. I wasn’t terribly literate in Jesus—my mother was an ex-Catholic who spurned organized religion in her adult life, so I had no religious schooling as a child—but I knew enough that I was able to cover the basics, from his birth in a manger, to his young adulthood as a proselytizer for compassion, forgiveness, and love, to his crucifixion and beyond, to the religion that was founded on the belief that Jesus, after suffering for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven.

After I finished with my narration, it was like someone had served my kids two triple shot Americanos. Tell me about Jesus! became a ten-times-a-day demand. They weren’t interested in his birth in the barn or his philosophies about how to live or even what he might be up to in heaven. They wanted only to know about his death. In excruciating  detail. Over and over again. Until every ugly fact sank into their precious bones. For months I was compelled to repeatedly describe precisely how Jesus was flagellated, humiliated, crowned with thorns, and nailed at the hands and feet to a wooden cross to die an agonizing death. Sometimes I would do this while making my way in a harried fashion up and down the aisles of the hoity-toity organic grocery store where we shop and people would turn and stare at me.

My children were both horrified and enthralled by Jesus’ crucifixion. It was the most appalling thing they’d ever heard. They didn’t understand the story within its religious context. They perceived only its brutal truth. They did not contemplate Jesus’ divinity, but rather his humanity. They had little interest in this business about him rising from the dead. He was not to them a Messiah. He was only a man. One who’d been nailed to a cross alive and endured it a good while.

Did it hurt his feelings when they were so mean to him? my son repeatedly asked. Where was his mommy? my daughter wanted to know.

After I told them about Jesus’ death, I wondered whether I should have.  Mr. Sugar and I had managed to shield them from almost all of the world’s cruelty by then, so why, for the love of God (ahem), was I exposing them to this? Yet I also realized they had to know—their fascination with Jesus’ agony was proof of that. I’d hit a nerve. I’d revealed a truth they were ready to know. Not about Christianity, but about the human condition: that suffering is part of life.

I know that. You know that. I don’t know why we forget it when something truly awful happens to us, but we do. We wonder why me? and how can this be? and what terrible God would do this? and the very fact that this has been done to me is proof that there is no God! We act as if we don’t know that awful things happen to all sorts of people every second of every day and the only thing that’s changed about the world or the existence or nonexistence of God or the color of the sky is that the awful thing is happening to us.

It’s no surprise you have such doubt in this moment of crisis, sweet pea. It’s perfectly natural that you feel angry and scared and betrayed by a God you want to believe will take mercy on you by protecting those dearest to you. When I learned my mom was going to die of cancer at the age of 45, I felt the same way. I didn’t even believe in God, but I still felt that he owed me something. I had the gall to think how dare he? I couldn’t help myself. I’m a selfish brute. I wanted what I wanted and I expected it to be given to me by a God in whom I had no faith. Because mercy had always more or less been granted me, I assumed it always would be.

But it wasn’t.

It wasn’t granted to my friend whose 18-year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver either. Nor was it granted to my other friend who learned her baby is going to die of a genetic disorder in the not-distant future. Nor was it granted to my former student whose mother was murdered by her father before he killed himself. It was not granted to all those people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when they came up against the wrong virus or military operation or famine or carcinogenic or genetic mutation or natural disaster or maniac.

Countless people have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms. To do as you are doing in asking if there were a God why would he let my little girl have to have possibly life threatening surgery?—understandable as that question is—creates a false hierarchy of the blessed and the damned. To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion. It implies a pious quid pro quo that defies history, reality, ethics, and reason. It fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising—the very half that makes rising necessary—is having first been nailed to the cross.

That’s where you were the other night when you wrote to me, dear woman. Pinned in place by your suffering. I woke up at 3am because I could feel you pinned there so acutely that I—a stranger—felt pinned too. So I got up and wrote to you. My email was a paltry little email probably not too different from the zillions of other paltry little emails you received from others, but I know without knowing you that those emails from people who had nothing to give you but their kind words, along with all the prayers people were praying for you, together formed a tiny raft that could just barely hold your weight as you floated through those terrible hours while you awaited your daughter’s fate.

If I believed in God, I’d see evidence of his existence in that. In your darkest hour you were held afloat by the human love that was given to you when you most needed it. That would have been true regardless of the outcome of Emma’s surgery. It would have been the grace that carried you through even if things had not gone as well as they did, much as we hate to ponder that.

Your question to me is about God, but boiled down to its essentials, it’s not so different than most of the questions people ask me to answer. It says: this failed me and I want to do better next time. My answer will not be so different either: to do better you’re going to have to reach. Perhaps the good that can come from this terrifying experience is a more complex understanding of what God means to you so the next time you need spiritual solace you’ll have something sturdier to lean on than the rickety I’ll-believe-he-exists-only-if-he-gives-me-what-I-want fence. What you learned as you sat bedside with Emma in the intensive care unit is that your idea of God as a possibly non-existent spirit man who may or may not hear your prayers and may or may not swoop in to save your ass when the going gets rough is a losing prospect.

So it’s up to you to create a better one. A bigger one.  Which is really, almost always, something smaller.

What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah?  Would you see the miracle in that?


And by the grace of Sugar, I found the answer I was looking for.