Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Death, Language, Theodicy

Some of you may know that my grandmother died this summer. And my cat has been sick. And yesterday, my cousin died of an inoperable tumor. I don't mean to blog this all up into some confessional, maudlin affair, but I fear I am disconsolate. Not in the sense that I am deeply grief-stricken; I won't pretend to that. I mean the term more etymologically. I am difficult to console.

Somehow it seems that loss just makes me hyper-critical. People (including those whom I respect and whose words I usually hear quite gladly) offer well-intentioned expressions of sympathy and I find myself analyzing and dissecting and evaluating every word and phrase. And it's not a defense mechanism, a deadening of emotion or a suppression of vulnerable feeling beneath the hardened exterior of cold, dry logic. Rather, the experience of loss is so complex and varied, so compellingly present, that I need the truth of it.

I'm in a course called Death, Grief, and Consolation this semester and part of the requirement is that I write a sermon which is to be graded not only on its theological foundations but also on its ability to offer comfort to the bereaved. I'm a bit worried about this; I don't seem to be comforted in the same way that normal people do. At least, not if the usual tropes of condolence are anything to judge by.

How can we make bold claims for the power of proper doctrine (e.g. "People are not comforted by specious fictions, but by truth") and then hedge round our truth with euphemism? How can we say that someone has "passed away" when the incontrovertible truth is that they died? Yes, we believe in the resurrection, but what great miracle is resurrection if the preceding death is not truly death but only some vague "passing away"? But perhaps I should be more kind in my reception of these words. The only way I can redeem them is to remember that we do, indeed, "pass away" like so many shadows.

Grieving What is Lost and What is Left Behind

And part of the problem, again, is that not all grief is quite the same. I do not grieve the loss of the people who have died this summer as much as I have grieved for others. Losing my maternal grandmother 10 years ago was harder than losing my paternal grandmother this summer. I was closer to one than the other; I grieved the loss more specifically. My grief now is more generalized; I grieve for my family and for what it is to be a family. We often say things like "blood is thicker than water", but blood is thin and family is a fragile and tenuous thing, knit together with spider-threads. It is tragic that we ourselves are so fleeting, so easily dissolved and yet what remains is so often injury, the warping of each successive generation as we struggle to give to one other while our self-focused pain and blind ignorance makes us instead rob and maim the hearts and souls of those we wish to love. What survives in families? Brokenness or wholeness, what we give and what we take. And, so often, we do not know which we are leaving behind us.

As for my cousin's death, I grieve for what is being born of it. Ten years ago (the same year my grandmother died -- and my cat; it was a bad year), the cousin's son was killed at college. The death was something in the line of "manslaughter" and the killer was another student at college, on a sports team. He was subject to no legal penalty and was neither expelled from school nor from the college sports team. The family, already bereft, grew bitter. And now, the cousin developed cancer. It was treated, returned, treated, returned, metastasized, became inoperable. Some of the family finds this incredibly "unfair". Why is it that they have suffered so much? His wife is angry, and (one could argue) this reaction is fully justified.

A Share of Sorrow

My sister feels that our cousin's wife should be angry, that it is unfair. I disagree. And I found myself thinking about this when someone, expressing his condolences, told me that my family had received more than its share of sorrow this year. The whole shape of this way of thinking makes no sense to me.

What is an appropriate or "fair" share of sorrow? Is there some justifiable allotment per annum that should not be exceeded? How much should we just expect and how much is de trop?

What would be my "share" of sorrow, for instance? There are others I could lose whom I would miss more personally. And all their deaths are owed on my "account", waiting to be paid at some time or other. If I lost all my dear ones -- family, friends, cat, sister, parents -- it would be no more than my "share". And then there is my own life, the things I possess, what health I have, what hope for my future in this life. If we are to love at all, we have much to lose. Nothing is ours to claim by right; all the things and people we treasure are owed. I am not Job to demand that God answer me if He should take all of them in a single hour, let alone a year.

Ah! but as the Soul Grows Older....

If I begin to think back over my life, I know I hThat ave lost much -- but that is less surprising the older I get. We move through life with holes in our pockets, continually losing all we think is ours -- family members, friends, relationships, opportunities, innocent illusions, misplaced hopes, cherished dreams -- that if we should stop to tally it all up, we would then have to begin again to add in what slipped away while we were counting. How do we face this? Rail and grieve constantly? When we can all think of others who have lost more (or had less to begin with), doesn't that seem simply presumptuous? Don't our vain protests seem at a certain point only to be bombast, sound and fury? Doesn't our indignation signify only that -- despite our fragility, proven by constant and uncontrollable loss -- we still think we should have some imperium, some right to command and have our demands met?

When I think of sinking into grief, I feel only tired -- as if to begin at all would be to grant that it would never end. Instead, I find that close on the heels of every maelstrom of anxiety and every weeping grief over what has been lost, I feel "old". That's the most fitting term for it. I feel something more akin to nostalgia than to true gut-tightening grief: a bittersweet sadness for what has gone or never arrived, a pang of tenderness for human beings, we who let so brief a span as a lifetime demand our rapt attention, our passionate all. It's a tenderness for myself as well; I am no sage. I have been so enveloped by cares this past week, worries for my present, my future, my past catching up with me and catching me out. But what is this immeasurable and ultimate thing that so consumes me? My "momentous" life is but momentary --the blink of an eye, a match igniting and flickering out -- dwarfed by previous generations who were born and died, to be forgotten by the generations who will come after.

I just keep thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "To a Young Child, On Spring". As best as I can remember, it goes like this:

Margaret, are you grieving
over Golden-grove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
with your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah, but as the soul grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
Yet you will weep and will know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same,
nor mouth had -- no, nor mind expressed
what heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight that man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The Blight That Man Was Born For

Or have I grown too resigned? Have I missed something vital? Am I not raging sufficiently against the dying of the light? Is death truly the blight that man was born for?

I think, rather, that death is the blight that man is born to.

Our bodies are frail and fragile; they hang to life precariously. There is nothing there to argue against death. We are not exempt from entropy.

But, of course, I am a Christian. I do not believe that the world simply came to be and will simply pass away; I believe it was created -- from nothing, from the absence that God permitted there to be so that He could make something that was not Himself. I believe that it is because of our origins that we teeter on the edge of death, transience, and non-being. Simply by existing, by not being God, we are susceptible to death and dissolution. But we were not created to die; God did not bring us into being to sit back and watch us dissolve into nothingness again, like a child blowing a myriad bubbles to watch them float and fall and finally pop of out of existence.

Given our origins, death is no surprise; given our Creator, death is a monstrous kindness. It is monstrous, illogical, truly atopos that the One who is Life itself, who brought a universe into being by His will and His Word should allow it all to perish and dissolve! But it is not cruelty but terrible and exquisite kindness that He should place so much of His creation in our power, letting us decide to remain in life by remaining in Him or to choose our own deaths. For this is what we have chosen.

It is tempting to pass the buck back to our primeval parents, to blame Adam and Eve and a smooth-talking snake and some fruit. But we choose death anew each day. We see others wither and die and we cling more fervently to death. We prefer fellow souls perched precariously on flesh to the very Source of their life and ours. We fear our deaths and snatch at goods more ephemeral than even we ourselves. I catch myself in the midst of doing it before I know what I have done. I have found myself recently clinging -- even for the sake of God -- to what is not God. And God, in deference to our folly, allows us to err, to choose our own demise. It is the very love of God that gave us life that also gives us the choice of death. And the abasement of God's self-giving knows no bounds; He not only let us seek what we desired, but joined us Himself in death.

What is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?

It becomes easy to consider death as God's judgment and to condemn Him on those grounds as a false lover. But is it not overwhelming that the God of such might would release so much to a creature? That He should allow us to take His gifts of existence, of His very image, and despise them, put them to naught again, undo the very work of His hand? Of course, it would be a sad (if poignant) story if God's ungrudging charity should be, at the end, mere Liebestod. And such a God would seem to outwit His very nature -- His very Love -- by loving His creation.

It is a surprise that we should live, being essentially nothing. It is a surprise that we should die, since God is all-powerful but chose to gieve us both life and the choice to remain in it, in Him, or to turn away. Still more surprising and miraculous is that we should taste death and live again. We by our actions overturned the order of God's creation; the death and dissolution which God did not create in this universe are now, somehow, "natural". And yet, God by His gracious actions in this very world of passing away, has provided for restoration. God has again declared creation good. He has taken for Himself the death we chose instead of Him purely to woo us back to Life. And we, who have no inherent right to life, can boast and vaunt over death as over a vanquished enemy.

Yes; it is right that we grieve. We are to love these others, as flimsy as ourselves. We declare with God that the work of His hand is good, that it is (in some mysterious equation) worth the incarnation and passion and death of the God who is Life. Not to grieve the loss would be to gainsay God's valuation of this world He created. We are pained by the loss of what we love and we are called to love the world. And death must be denounced; for we do not wish to say that God delights in the destruction of the ones whom He has cherished in His mind and brought to birth by Word and Spirit. But neither should we rage against death as if it has not been conquered. Neither should we join in the deaths of those we love by thinking that the loss of them is the loss of our Life. This death, this rip in the faultless fabric of creation, is temporary. And it is the consequence of our contempt for Life and the true Source of Life. So death is indeed our ineluctable inheritance. But the miracle is that Life is also ours to inherit, if we are not so enamored of this little life so hemmed round with death that we neglect Life and rather fawn upon the death we wish to flee.

And so, I am disconsolate, for there is little I feel which needs to be consoled away. My heart has been broken many times and knit back together. And more people will die or leave and my heart shall break and mend again. More than anything in these times of loss, I want to think on what is true, what cannot be lost, the deep and beautiful ways of God that even death and the grave cannot thwart or overcome. Certainly, it is painful and bad, but so much in this life is painful and bad -- this is certainly no worse than the rest of it; the painful bad parts just move closer to us or farther away. So, I will learn to be comforting to others; but to anyone wishing to comfort me, I can say only this: Do not make a sugar-coated confection of death lest I fail to give glory to the One who has overcome death. But do not make loss or death seem the ultimate, terrible, final undoing lest I forget that death has been overcome and begin to think this life more precious than that Life which I must hold to and hope for.

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