Be Grateful for Ordinary Worries
It has been a sobering few days for Jayne and me. First the word from a former student and long-time friend that her twin sister, who has traveled abroad with us, had a sudden onset of mental illness last winter and had committed suicide a few days prior.
Then a visit a couple of days ago to another former student who was bitten by a mosquito last year and developed West Nile disease, leaving her totally paralyzed except for eye movement. And totally conscious and aware. My colleague and I read her the Poohsticks bridge episode from Winnie-the-Pooh, doing our best Eeyore and Tigger voices. About half-way through I asked if she was tired and wanted us to stop. We interpreted her eyes to be saying, “No, please go on.”
Prior to either of these we attended the funeral of the only child of a widowed friend. The young man was in his thirties—also briefly a former student, now that I think about it—and had struggled with drugs and alcohol for years, sometimes winning, often losing. And, due to an infection, had lost his legs below the knees. He recently made an inspiring trip to Africa where he brought encouragement and prosthetics to Africans who shared his affliction. But addiction won in the end and we gathered to say goodbye and to comfort our friend.
What to make of such things in rapid succession? There is no new news here. Job knew all about this. As did the Greek tragedians. And Shakespeare. And the family that lost six sons in the sinking of one ship during WWII. And those with lives exploded by recent terrorism, domestic and otherwise. We all have heard such things and some have experienced them. So what do we do besides feel numb for a bit and then move on?
We try to support the grieving, of course. There is a difference between worries, pain, and sorrows. We all have worries, we all occasionally feel pain, but there are special seasons of sorrow that are their own thing. One thing that distinguishes sorrow from worries and pain is mystery. Sorrow has an element of unanswerable “why?” that is usually absent in worry and everyday pain.
Sorrow pushes us toward ultimate questions. And the answers to ultimate questions always have a periphery of uncertainty to them, sometimes an uncertainty nearer the center. At least they do for me.
And invoking God increases rather than diminishes that uncertainty and that mystery. Absolute randomness in a godless, material universe is easier to explain than pain and sorrow in a world infused with a supposedly good God. That mosquito bite? Just bad luck. Wrong place at the wrong time. Sad but not mysterious. Same with mental illness and addiction—out of balance chemicals in the brain. Regrettable, but no need for further explanation. No implications for “Meaning.”
No, God complicates things. But then that matches my experience with reality—complicated, mysterious.
In the tangle of thoughts and emotions prompted by the sorrowing of my friends, one of them is as follows: cultivate gratitude. Be grateful for the stretches of your life that are marked only by ordinary worries and pains. Do not whine about your life. It treats you better than you deserve. If that is not true in your case, then may your season of sorrow be followed by wisdom, service, and seasons of joy.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned all this and more in his ten years in Stalin’s labor camps—and during the long years of exile and harassment thereafter. Here is his summary (from The Gulag Archipelago)—apply it to your own life as seems best to you:
"What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory--property and position--all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life--don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same . . . whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart--and prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be the last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory."