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Sunday Thought: Mere Physics

I watched my wife take a fall the other day, Sunday, I believe it was. We had just returned from Home Goods and she was helping me carry a new bathroom vanity with a heavy marble top up the back steps. At one point before we got to the steps, I asked her if she needed to put it down and rest. "No. Let's just do this." As she mounted that last step into the kitchen, I saw her begin to sag and somehow knew she wouldn't recover from it. I knew it from the helpless surprise on her face. It's amazing how much was packed into it: that helplessness, a flash of fear, a quizzical disbelief, amazement, and a desperation born of the physical exertion required to fight off the inevitable. Mind and body battle even when one of them knows the battle is lost. Then she fell heavily onto her back, the vanity resting on her legs.

And there was nothing I could do to help her.

"Are you all right?" I asked, and her "I don't know," didn't help any. I tried lifting the vanity, already fearing that she might have a broken leg or a splintered shin, but could hardly move it. It was just too long and too heavy. I did not have one of those moments you see on TV where the mother lifts the car off her child. I tried pulling it off her but she begged me not to because it hurt too much. She finally sat up and was able to help enough to extract her legs. I just watched, waiting to see if she'd get to her feet. Finally she did. I lifted the vanity upright, left it just inside the door, and escorted her to the bathroom where we tended to her wounds. The top of her ankle was badly skinned and her shin bone bruised. I knew from experience that one can have a splintered bone and still walk around, so I kept an eye on her and asked annoying questions for the next couple of days.

It turns out there were precautions we might have taken. She doesn't like going backwards while carrying things. But instead of insisting that I take that part, she went ahead with it. She also might have changed out of the floppy white sandals she was wearing, one of which probably caught on the top step. And what of my responsibility? I don't know. Maybe if I had thought things out a little more all would have been well. Or maybe not. Even when human beings take every precaution they can think of, bad things still happen. I couldn't shake the thought of how much worse it might have been if events had taken just a slightly different turn. If she had fallen a few more inches in one direction, her head might have smashed against the cabinet countertop, or against the floor. Somehow she had managed to hold onto the vanity till the last possible instant, saving her legs, and then, upon releasing it, to break her own fall.

It reminded me - in the course of taking her presence for granted on a daily basis - of how much I hate to see her suffer, or even come close to it. It struck me as a smaller version of those larger, catastrophic events - the Asian tsunami, the Haitian earthquake - in which very many people suffered and died and which, if they are 'intended to be,' could only be conceived by a mind in chaos, and a diabolical one at that. Well, it might be objected, a little forethought might have saved your wife her trouble, while no amount of it can stop an earthquake or tsunami.

While this is at least partly true, I'll keep to the analogy. No amount of forethought can prevent the insanity of circumstance. A man looks both ways before crossing the street but still gets hit by a car. The skydiver inspects his equipment thoroughly, but when he jumps from 10,000 feet, the chute won't open. A woman leaves her house to go for a jog, and a tree in a neighbor's yard falls on top of her. Our most spectacular engineering projects are not immune, as more than one space shuttle has blown up in the sky. Whether manmade or natural, every catastrophe can be traced through a perfectly rational series of causes and effects. This may satisfy the rational mind (had we the omniscience to see it) but is of little solace to the spirit. We move blithely and happily through our apparently well-ordered lives - eating, drinking and being merry - and as a rule even nature seems to smile on our efforts. But when a tornado destroys an American town, to its residents it must seem as though hell has risen to infect our little paradise with its malevalent disorder, even as we know that tornadoes, like earthquakes, result from utterly natural and explainable causes.

What disturbs our sleep is that we are not immune. What perturbs our sense of justice is that these events do not discriminate, the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike. Apparently something awful happened (as we Christians believe anyway) way back a long time ago and no longer will the angels bear us up lest we dash our foot against a stone. We all have to pay, some sooner, some later, but we all pay in the end.

There are some people, usually very bad people, of whom I would like very much to hear that they had been buried in the rubble, while all the nicer folk are spared. But I have often wondered if it would bother me very much if I heard that an annoying neighbor had died in a car accident. I don't think it would. I might even think he must have had it coming for some reason. Yet if the lady across the street - an enthusiastic Christian, mother to several children, good wife to her husband, and always with a friendly word on her lips for neighbors like me - were to pass away from breast cancer (as she very nearly did) I would be sad indeed, and miss her keenly at least for a while. This probably says something about us, about the depravity of our condition, as feelings fail us when misfortune strikes our enemies, real or perceived. Of really bad people, our sense of justice decrees that the Lord's wrath cannot come too soon. Of those who are obviously not really bad, but whom we merely dislike for some reason or other, we are capable only of indifference. This ought to be a frightening realization, but generally it isn't.

My wife is one of those good Christian women. I can't see why she should suffer evil. I suppose (am compelled to accept) that she must be a sinner, but if so her sins are well-hidden. If she has a public defect, it is that of impatience, but this is usually, almost exclusively, directed at me, and thus has a reasonable cause. But is a young child who dies in a tsunami deserving of such a fate? As a consequence of sin, I mean? If we are perfectly honest, we'll admit we can't answer it. But even if we assume that the answer is "no," the question has already been answered by the cross. He didn't deserve it either, yet embraced it in the end. He was (if the story is true) both victim and conqueror. The difficulty for us is that the conqueror's victory can only (fully) be enjoyed by us in another life. Not in this one, the one in which innocent children die and good Christian women are made to suffer.

I once had a protracted internet quarrel with an Orthodox theologian about this on the occasion of that Asian tsunami, more precisely, about the value of the suffering of such innocents, which I don't wish to reproduce here, but, in summary, it was his position that the deaths of those innocents were indeed meaningless, while mine was that their deaths, and their suffering, "had meaning." He was much offended that some Christian might think this, and suppose further, to the theologian's outrage, that it would all make sense in the light of God's providence, that there would be an ultimate balancing out of good and evil, the good and the bad among us being rewarded and punished as our measure of virtue decrees. I meant, of course, that this was a task for eternity, hardly impossible to a God who sees what we cannot. That freak accident that killed someone dear to you will certainly seem meaningless in the moment, just another vagary of fate to which our species is subject. But there is something in us that wants more. We need to know that it has purpose, some effect beyond itself that is of benefit to its victim and to others. That it is, though we cannot see it at once, an agent of grace. If Christ's death, though He did not deserve it, had meaning, how can yours not as well?

I have to believe this. I must. If I could not, I don't think I could remain a Christian. It requires, I'm afraid, that we embrace what the body and mind naturally rebel against with a nearly visceral hatred: suffering and death as things that work to our good. It seems that, as any event can be analyzed in terms of its causes and effects, its 'mere physics,' so there is something in the physics of salvation that requires our submission to the fragility of life, to the breaking of it, to its very end. And it is a thing that terrifies many of us. I try to think of this awful fate much as I think of prayer. The latter must be efficacious, since we are commanded to do it, always, and further, to "never lose heart." I like to think of the benefits of prayer as having a sort of ripple effect (there is nothing original in this, I know), working both in and outside of time. The prayer you say today for someone's physical or spiritual well-being might bear fruit many years down the road; or it might be that some wonderful thing happened in that person's life long ago because of a prayer you said yesterday, God's foreknowledge of it propelling grace backwards in time. Why can't suffering work like that? Why can't suffering be a prayer?

Comments (13)

Oh, Bill, thank you for this lovely meditation. You have expressed something that disturbs me at least every other day, and it is so helpful to hear the same conclusion expressed that also keeps me from despair (when I finally again allow myself to hear it). If anything "has no meaning" then we are indeed doomed and may as well get out of this life any way and any time we see fit. But we (mostly) resist that conclusion despite even terrible suffering (on our part or as our general observation of the world) -- which in itself suggests an intuitive knowledge that what you have expressed here is true. Thank you.

Mind and body battle even when one of them knows the battle is lost.

When I had the occasion to look up some quotes about death, I was surprised by the number that had the premise "Life is pain, death is a release". While that is certainly true there is also something drastically unbalanced about it. Our accomplishments in life may just be dust in the grand scheme of entropy, but there is something worthy and uniquely human about the attempt that makes it impossible to dismiss.

A penny for my thoughts, oh no, I'll sell them for a dollar
They're worth so much more after I'm a goner
And maybe then you'll hear the words I been singing
Funny when you're dead how people start listening - "If I Die Young", The Band Perry

Human suffering is just suffering, and it is obscene.

One's response to suffering may indeed be a prayer, but that is a different thing, entirely.

Thanks much for this post, Bill. I want to pick up on the idea of one's suffering and one's death having meaning and take it in a direction I might pursue in a post myself: It seems especially important that God allows the suffering for a meaningful reason _for the person suffering_. I used to worry a little when people talked about God's allowing suffering "for a higher purpose" that some idea was lurking around that God was simply "painting a picture for the angels"--in other words, that God might be using the person as an object lesson for someone else or for some "higher good" completely separate from the good of the individual. That cannot be how it works. That is to say, even if the suffering does have a purpose for other people, it must _at least_ have a purpose for the person himself, though it seems that this purpose may be realized only after death.

Good meditation. This troubles me often too. I hope that suffering has meaning and isn't just meaningless physics. When I reflect more I know how infinitesimal my knowledge is on this subject. I have some of the Christian hope that what may appear meaningless to us here has meaning in the ultimate good sense, although I only have heard hints of what that meaning could be, all of which are not that satisfactory. When it comes to suffering, I think it is important not to give in to shallow religious optimism nor the nihilism in much of this world. The Christian hope is more hard-edged, distinct, and better than all that.

This is very beautiful - thanks.

Sweet Beth. What would I do without you?

A link to a video of the band Step2 quotes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NJqUN9TClM&ob=av2e

I'll look forward to that post, Lydia, and an article built upon it that I can put in TCR.

Steve might be suffering the influence of his Roman surroundings, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

The Christian hope is more hard-edged, distinct, and better than all that.


There are some people, usually very bad people, of whom I would like very much to hear that they had been buried in the rubble, while all the nicer folk are spared. But I have often wondered if it would bother me very much if I heard that an annoying neighbor had died in a car accident. I don't think it would.

A good post, but right here I think you've pushed the limits of self-deprecation beyond what is credible. I can't believe you wouldn't be bothered. In fact, one of the changes in my perspective over the years is the understanding that I am never entitled to be annoyed. There is no such entitlement. Moreover, the thing that keeps that on track is the understanding that if this person were to pass away in the morning, would he die knowing I was annoyed at him? The first proposition presupposes that I was annoyed at him unjustifiably. It's a horrible thought to contemplate. Now if people think disagreeing with one's ideas means one is annoyed with them that is a misunderstanding on their part.

That is not to to say there wouldn't be an unthinking moment, those moments that reveal who we truly are rather than who we want to be, when we realized we wouldn't have to deal with something uncomfortable anymore and may have felt a moment of relief. I find it hard to believe that we all haven't felt this, and I'm not sure any of us can be sure we'll ever be beyond that in this life. But that is another matter. What follows for right-thinking Christians is that we are greatly troubled. So no, I can't accept that you wouldn't be bothered at the death of an annoying neighbor. Few wouldn't, and not you.

Awww . . . digging my toe in the dirt and looking shy . . . :)

Bill, thank you for this. Good to be reminded, and forced to re-consider, such home truths.

Ilion, what about the child of one who suffers and dies: does he "respond to" his suffering with a prayer?

Even suffering of this nature has a purpose. God's providence and omnipotence is absolute: it sees over every aspect of every event and person.

Thanks, Tony.

I will now be a disagreeable scientific Puritan Bibliolater.

Pain is usually God's way of telling you to slow down. Over-ruminating on the nature of suffering is usually a sign that you haven't had enough real suffering to understand its nature and treatment yet. Not to mention a dinstinct lack of enough spiritual sensitivity to distingush between the pains of biological life and the pains of living in a spiritually, legally, and morally confused culture. Sicknesses and injuries heal without you having to think about the process. Societies and relationships don't.

And what's this about good and evil people? Most information on such people as we do know is fragmentary even within our own experience. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, he's no respecter of persons, our righteousness is as filthy rags, and the Lord will use people as tools even if they will not condescend to be called his sons, unless the Old Testament was just a book of fables that has no present bearing on reality. Fashing your psyche with who lives and who dies in what disaster is irrelevant to the question of who you can affect for the good and glory of God today. All else is emotionalism, which I expect women to fall into by nature and men to resist and learn from by the training of other men.

If you want to ruminate on 'mere Physics,' go play Half-Life 2. If you want to learn about why we suffer pain, I can't do much better than the quote from the doctor near the end of Bioshock 2, if I may roughly paraphrase it:

"At first we had the idea to engineer our Little Sisters not to feel pain. This idea didn't pan out when they started chewing their tongues off out of boredom and had to be sequestered from the others. We then hit upon the idea of engineering them to regenerate far more quickly than any human. while this proved more fruitful, there were still hard cases. One five-year old Little Sister who broke her leg regenerated it at a completely unnatural angle. We ended up having to re-break the leg ten times before finally being able to set it at an angle where she could at least limp properly."

See what they did there? Better understanding of human nature through good ol' fantasy(though by no means disconnected from reality) horror. Unless your righteousness, serendipity, and intuitive understanding of human nature surpasses that of popular video game designers, let alone our modern liberal Pharisees and Sadducees, then you can start talking about whether God did right in choosing one man over another in that last disaster. But we've had far too many concurrent disasters with predictable consequences to start going "Why, God, WHY!?" at this point. What was true before will remain true despite our feelings on the matter, which should mainly be used to understand those going through similar situations, rather than making law or custom.

No offense, but what an idiotic screed.

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