Truth is, some folks can’t. Hopeless victims of desperate circumstance become statistics on suicide, taking themselves out of the game rather than endure another day of mental and emotional anguish. Like funny man Robin Williams. Hangs himself with his own belt. Show’s over folks. Nuthin’ more to see here. One would presume that a guy like him had it all. Family, fame, fortune. Ironically, as is the case with so many comedians like Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, happiness was a commodity all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Addictions, depression, broken marriages. It’s what the Smokey Robinson 1971 song is all about. “Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my sadness hid/Smiling in the public eye/But in my lonely room I cry/The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” It makes me wonder how many people actually “lead lives of quiet desperation . . .” as Thoreau wrote, wondering Why am I here and does it even matter? “. . . and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
The struggle to find and embrace significance is a prominent theme in religion, art, music, literature and everything human because it’s common to us all. It’s what we need in order to fall asleep at night, and to have a reason to get back out of bed every morning. It’s what we need to make it all worthwhile, to keep us out of the closet with a belt.
In our civilization’s ongoing quest for the meaning of life, history shows that we’ve postulated just about every theory possible, from plausible to absurd. Of course the most common efforts for explaining human existence can be found in your basic Religion 101 class along with an elective course in Introductory Philosophy thrown in. Every culture has come up with some kind of rationale to keep us from teetering into the abyss of nihilism, some sort of system with a god or gods or a higher power out there somewhere. Most ancient legends and epic narratives portray mythological deities as more human-like than divine – capricious, contriving, scandalous, fated by their faults and failures. Not much help there.
Today’s most popular options on the Religions of the World Chart have billions of followers. The self-discipline of The Buddha teaches us to meditate our way to enlightenment. Apparently many have not yet located their happy place. Or there’s the ethical politeness of Confucianism, with yin and yang, energy in constant balance, in perfect harmony, separate but equal. Which side of the taijitu are you on? Let’s crack open a couple fortune cookies and find out.
Hinduism keeps us trapped under the law of karma on a continual treadmill cycle of reincarnation. Please, just show me the way out. Remember John Lennon’s lyrics? “Instant Karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right on the head/You better get yourself together/Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.” Aren’t we all.
Even the Judaeo-Christian God of the Bible doesn’t find it necessary to explain everything. So much is hidden, mysterious, full of paradox and subjective interpretation. Not bashful about voicing complaints to the Lord about the problem of evil and suffering, psalmist King David lamented about the apparent injustices of life, that the wicked seemed to prosper while the righteous endured adversity without cause. Eventually, says the Lord, everyone will get what’s due. But for now, just wait. Have faith. Trust. Believe. I’m in control.
I think science, with all of its benefits to society and advances to be enjoyed, has coincidentally made it harder to exercise that kind of faith. Microscopes and telescopes allow us to see through that curtain of curiosity, inward and outward to worlds unimaginable. Actually, splitting the atom raises more questions than answers. Billions of galaxies spinning in an incredibly vast expanse of space reveal an intelligent designer with an extravagant sense of creativity. But why? What does it matter to me? I have a mortgage to pay and a car that needs a new muffler. By the way, what’s for dinner?
The premise of order and meaning in what we see and cannot see becomes strained, however, when our most well-intentioned spiritual convictions begin to evaporate under intense pressure. Holding on to or defending a belief system becomes especially trying when our most fervent, faith-filled, selfless prayers go unanswered. Or when we hear that a drunk driver crossed the median and plowed into a school bus full of kids returning from church camp. Several dead, dozens injured and scarred for life.
Or when an honest, hard-working man gets fired for something that wasn’t even remotely his fault. The company goes on to post record profits. Keep your resumés updated, people. Or when the poster child for perfect health and fitness drops dead while jogging. I can see the obituary now: Age 32, faithful husband, provider, father of three, gone in a whisper.
What we need is an operator’s manual, a guideline for troubleshooting through all the possible scenarios that interrupt our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t you wish that there could be an easy way to get explanations for the jack-in-the-box surprises that explode in our faces? Maybe like an Ask Abby column in the newspaper. Just write out a description of your problem. Drop it in the cosmic mailbox, and then wait for the morning news to get your answer. “Dear Desperate and Confused Planet Earth Dweller. Thanks for your letter. Here’s my advice: Leave your spouse. Move to a new town. Reconcile with your mother-in-law. Then all will be well.” Or how about a 1-800 number. “Hello, um, yes. I’d like to order a better life. Yeah, one for my four-year-old girl, the one with leukemia. And could you express ship that, please? We’re running out of time.”
There seems to be enough weeping and gnashing of teeth here in this world even before the doors of heaven close for good. So what’s left? Shaking a fist at the sky? Languishing like Job, a mere pawn in a spiritual game of chess, waiting for the final checkmate to see who wins the tournament?
Isn’t it true that often we find it so much easier to “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow” when the colonoscopy test results are negative, when the bonus shows up on the paycheck, when the college scholarship is a full four-year free ride? For me it becomes a bit more challenging when I’m calling to schedule a root canal, or when I hear about my dear friends’ baby’s death, or when someone I love is struggling to deal with impossible odds against them and I can’t help fix it. Sometimes I want to write a letter back to the New Testament’s James and say, “You know that count it all joy through trials thing? Wow, that’s a tough teaching, brother!” In reality, it’s probably an impossible perspective to learn and live without a proper spiritual frame of mind, without a strong conviction in the goodness of a God Who knows me personally and desires the best for me. Unconditionally.
Last week I faced head-on an inexplicable tragedy that once again leaves me empty for answers to the ever-nagging question of “Why?”
Tyler, a good buddy of mine, came to an untimely, sudden, violent accidental death. When someone we know is diagnosed as terminal, or is old and feeble, we know the end is eventually coming; death is stalking at the door, and we are somewhat emotionally prepared when the plug is pulled. But when a vibrant, active, happy 24-year-old combat vet full of passion for life is gone in seconds, it becomes harder to wrap our heads around. Maybe we can’t. That’s why it’s so vexing. So troubling, so disturbing, and especially so much more painful now during a time reserved for the expression of peace, joy and holiday cheer.
I am deeply grieved at his passing, but I heard something during the funeral eulogy that might help me get through this. Encouraging the bereaved to stay strong through the heartache of this calamity, his pastor quoted from Chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I like The Message version:
“We [those who are true followers of Christ] continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”
Several key ideas here to ponder out of many: “ . . . for whatever God will do next.” Reality check: This is God’s universe, and so far He hasn’t consulted with me for my opinion of His agenda. Maybe I need to reread the final five chapters of the Book of Job. “Then the Lord said to Job, ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.’” (Job 40:1-2) KJV
I may never know all the reasons why life seems at times to unravel into a helpless heap, like a laundry basket full of soiled clothes. Hard to admit it sometimes but I will find myself in a better place when I acknowledge Who is really in control. That being said, as I develop passionate patience I suspect that God and I will continue to have serious conversations regarding my perplexities, my pain and my frustration when I’m hemmed in with troubles. I need to learn how to bear up better in the fiery forge tempering my soul. Instead of shortchanged, I need to see myself abundantly blessed, my containers ready to overflow with enough hope to spill over onto those who are desperate for a reason to carry on through their own heap of troubles.
I’m going to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year because, in spite of my time of grief and loss concurring hand-in-hand with this season of Comfort and Joy, I choose to hope that all things will ultimately work together for good (Rom. 8:28), and to see that from God’s perspective, nothing in this universe is ever senseless.