Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part series on suffering. Come back next week for part two. Listen along to our series soundtrack here.
I have many questions for you
My mouth is so full I cannot chew
Are you listening? Are you listening?
My friends are hurting, they are hurting.Mindful, Tow’rs
It takes very little these days to feel the sorrow dripping from the world like sap; it sticks to everything. I’ll admit I’ve been a little disconnected these past two years, floating more than walking through life, surviving more than living. Perhaps you can relate. I started grad school last fall in the middle of a worldwide lockdown. I started my second year as a war came to an end and a different one took its place, as an Earthquake killed thousands, as ICU beds filled to capacity yet again. It’s been a little too much if I’m honest. I’m still struggling to find words to name the experiences, still wondering whether the words matter at all. Yet, I’ve felt myself chewing on a few words these past few weeks as I watch the world end again, feeling a little like the Pharaoh in the year of the plagues, wondering in my pride when it will all just stop, wondering when we might get a morsel of relief. Over the next four weeks, we’ll wrestle our way through portions of Ecclesiastes, in search of meaning for the suffering embedded so deeply into our skin and screamed so loudly in the world around us.
I want to start with a question exemplified through a story of my own small suffering. I know that in a world of existential, collective trauma the broken heart of one man is a little selfish to focus on. My hope in bringing it up, though, is two-fold. Perhaps you will be encouraged to claim and name the personal tragedy that has afflicted you even in spite of the need to honor and acknowledge the much bigger grief around us. Even if it doesn’t matter to most, what matters to one still matters. Secondly, I want to disentangle us from the political nature of global suffering, the weaponry that suffering arms us with against presidents and kings, even against our better judgment. We’ll unpack that more in week three. I want to disentangle us from the political nature as much as possible because I’m utilizing my story and my story is built on my body and my body is politicized and debated.
I had discovered that the guy I was seeing was cheating on me, a betrayal that felt devastating to me because a few days prior I had confided in him a great vulnerability that exposed an insecurity I had brought into our relationship. I had wanted to work on it to be a better partner for him. I felt stupid for wanting to invest even more into something he had already, at least partially, let go of. I was wanting to fix something about myself and now I had evidence that so much more of me was broken than I had originally thought. Something about me was not enough for him and the essence of who I was and what value I brought to his life was not worth the truth. When I confronted him, he denied it. Worse, he explained it away, made me feel bad for thinking that I knew what I knew. So, I stayed and doubled my pain when 17 days later I walked out of his house into a snowstorm after he stopped even trying to hide his various affairs.
I felt the weight of it for months. I felt the weight of loving someone I didn’t know, of loving someone who didn’t love me. I felt the weight of not being enough, of being so tangibly unworthy of love and of truth. I felt the weight of doubt. And I felt the weight of the timeless question I had asked multiple times before, the weight of the question I still ask, the weight of the question I have no doubt I will ask until the day I head Home.
This experience was the perfect example of this question because, as I suffered, he did not. As I questioned if I could be loved, he was in a new loving relationship. The childhood adage “cheaters never prosper” sits uncomfortably next to the nature of reality. Cheaters always prosper. The situation is fully in their control and when the relationship ends, they already have their next relationship lined up.
The question, of course, is why is this bad thing happening? And why is it happening to me?
Who are we that you are mindful of us?
Who are we that you are mindful of us?
Is this the part we just have to try and trust?Mindful, Tow’rs
Why do bad things happen? Why do bad things happen to me and the people I love? This problem has plagued scholars and theologians for centuries if not millennia. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with lament, a theme you’ll have no doubt noticed if you’ve read any of my prior work, so these questions have been foundational to who I am. They are worthwhile questions, deep and meaningful ones. But they have become less meaningful to me recently because the weight of the bad is over and beyond what the weight of the good has been recently. Although, there is still good.
I was on a zoom call with five of my friends the other week. It was the first time all six of us had been together in some time, each of us scattered around the country. I found my mind blissfully empty. I had no questions. I was only there in the moment, full and drunk on the laughter. We were trading stories about our lives recently, trips back home to visit family, big milestones like births and engagements. We were trading questions and shock at revelations from parents and siblings.
Not once on that call did I ask myself why there was a good thing happening to me. It isn’t as though I’ve never questioned the presence of goodness. In fact, a few days after our zoom call, I was texting with a friend about a mutual friend who had posted a picture of him and his boyfriend. It was a little difficult to see him smiling because this friend had caused us each a lot of pain in the relationships he had had with us. We both remarked that we hoped he was a healthier person, that he had grown and begun to make better choices for the sake of his boyfriend. And yet, I texted her “But idk it’s also kind of hard to think about him being happy I guess.”
I have, then, felt very comfortable questioning goodness and joy, just never when I was the recipient. I wonder if I were honest with myself, if I would discover that the problem of good is as compelling as the problem of evil. I wonder if the question of why something good has happened to me is just as elusive as the question of why something bad has happened.
Ecclesiastes is sometimes read among Jews during the Feast of Sukkoth, a feast that takes place in the fall in remembrance of the exiled years on their way to the Promised Land. The feast is joyous in spite of the pain, a reminder of God’s provisions. Many Jews celebrate by building huts in their backyard or sleeping underneath the stars, exposing themselves to the elements and exist solely underneath the provision and presence of God. As Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks remarked at the feast following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “We call Sukkot our festival of joy, because sitting there in the cold and the wind, we remember that above us and around us are the sheltering arms of the divine presence. If I were to summarize the message of Sukkot I’d say it’s a tutorial in how to live with insecurity and still celebrate life.”
I wonder if we are to endure suffering the same way we are to endure joy – with experience over interrogation. Lately, I’ve been feeling the call to simply live in the day I woke up in, to worry a little bit less about tomorrow, to be a little less excited about it. In the middle of a climate crisis and a global pandemic, I am more than aware that tomorrow is only a dream, only a hope. The future is not tangible; it may not even exist. The point of Ecclesiastes is that life is futile. We are told that work is meaningless, that everything we accumulate will fall away. We are even told that we will fade away: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” (3:20). In the very beginning we are told this plainly: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” (1:2).
When I read that in preparation for this series, it felt a bit like balm on the wound. The questions I ask are meaningful to me because, as I mentioned, lament is an important spiritual practice for me. But I’m beginning to wonder if the answer would change anything for me. If I found out why my life has been one of repeated suffering, endless trauma, would it matter? If I discovered why just sitting in the presence of my friends meant so much, would I appreciate it more? Would I discover I didn’t deserve it? Would I be stuck in the same life, only now I would have heavy answers instead of questions?
A few chapters later we are told: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.” (7:14a). Moving forward through the endless suckage, the darkest, forlorn night, I’m still going to ask questions because, as Semler wrote, “I’m giving this my all,” but I am going to be mindful of the questions I am asking. That if I am going to ask “why suffering?” I need to also ask “Why joy?” Next week, we are going to talk more about what it might mean to live in life rather than to live life. But for now, I want us to think about the questions we are asking, and to question whether asking them is helpful. Maybe we’re in a season of exploration and we need to be asking. Or, maybe we’re in a season we need to simply experience because the answers, whatever they could possibly be, wouldn’t make a lick of difference to our wounds which just simply hurt.
As I question
God, question with me.
As I release my questions
Christ, sit beside me.
Verses quoted in this post come from he NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible published by Zondervan whose notes were helpful in writing this post. Notes in the NRSV The Harper Collins Study Bible published by Harper One were also used. Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page). Like him on Facebook or follow him on Instagram or Goodreads.
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