Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Suffering (for Ellen)

My mom used to say I could bring anyone home except a Republican or a born-again Christian (by which she actually meant fundamentalist Christian). And the truth is that she would have very much welcomed both, if they were one of the many college friends I used take home with me for the weekend, because extravagant hospitality was kind of the basic organizing principle of my family. She would have given them a hard time – all in good fun, of course – but she would have welcomed them, and they would have loved her, because everyone loved my mom. She got along with everyone except idiots. (She really couldn’t abide idiots).

But as it turns out, I didn’t have any born-again or even Republican friends in college, and what my mom really meant, anyway, was that she’d rather I didn’t fall in love with one. But anyone else? That would be just fine. And she really meant it. I think she loved reliving her own youthful exuberance vicariously through me. Having come of age in the 60’s, she understood perfectly the sort of ardent conversion experience young adulthood can be – even if, as in my case, you’re not converting away from anything, but just passionately embracing your world and your values as your own, and not just as an inheritance, even if a welcome one.

So when I announced, after taking Intro to Philosophy: Food Ethics, that I was a vegetarian, Mom thought that was fine, especially since I could explain why. I got her a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, and she discovered that you don’t really need meat at every meal. And when I brought home a black boyfriend, she loved him (he was pretty lovable, I’ll admit). Next was the Cuban girlfriend – she didn’t blink. Then the Methodist minister’s daughter (not Julie, the one before Julie) – even that didn’t phase her (but only because she was not a fundamentalist).

So when I announced that I was going to be majoring in Peace and Global Studies, I wasn’t anxious that my parents might suggest that I get a real degree, for all the money they were spending to send me to the most expensive liberal arts college in the state, for heaven’s sake. And I was right. My mom thought Peace and Global Studies was a splendid thing to major in, and she even got sort of intrigued. My mom had, among many other wonderful qualities, one of the sharpest intellects of anyone I’ve ever known, and a deeply curious mind, so there wasn’t much she wasn’t intrigued by. Everything I was studying was fair game for long conversations on the green couch by the wood stove in our big farmhouse kitchen.

I remember in particular a conversation on the couch about the concept of “structural violence.” I used the phrase and mom immediately perked up: “What does that mean, ‘structural violence’?” I started to explain, but she already had it figured out. “That’s the way oppressive structures – like racism, or poverty – do violence to people, right? And it can be really explicit violence, like lynching, but it can also be slower, or less direct violence, like the way a child’s mind and spirit and opportunities get more and more and more hemmed in by living in poverty.”

Exactly. Yeah, she was pretty awesome.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with my mom a lot lately, in part because I’ve been thinking about suffering a lot lately. I’m thinking about suffering these days because I’m holding several friends in prayer who are suffering a lot right now. I’m also thinking about suffering these days because when I solicited topics for my daily Advent blogging (what was I thinking?), Ellen suggested I tackle the question, “Why is there suffering?” Ellen knows too much of suffering lately. I am quite sure I am entirely inadequate to the task of explaining suffering to her or anyone else. Indeed, the only sort of cosmic answer I know to that question is, “I have no idea.”

But still, I know a little bit about suffering, especially of the sort Ellen is experiencing right now, the suffering of losing someone very dear to you, way too young. For Ellen it was her brother, who died just a couple of weeks ago; for me it was my mom, who died almost twenty years ago.

I used to think there was a pretty clear distinction between the sort of suffering that stems from, well, life, you know? And the sort of suffering that stems from structural violence. I remember making this distinction to my mom in that conversation on the green couch, when she immediately got it about structural violence: “Yeah, and you know, it’s not like the world would be without suffering if we ended structural violence. People would still leave their lovers, and break each other’s hearts, and there would still be earthquakes and people would still die of natural causes. But war and poverty and racism? Seems like that sort of suffering is worth fighting against.” My mom, of course, entirely agreed, and enthusiastically endorsed my plan to be a Peacemaker (“A Profession for the Future,” remember Earlham friends?)

The more I learn of the world, though, and the ugly horrible ways that human structures work on it, the less I am convinced that such a stark distinction is meaningful. Cancer may not be a violent human structure, but industrialized agriculture certainly is, and so is toxic waste, and probably both contribute in ways known and unknown to many cancers. Hurricanes may not be violent human structures, but if they ramp up because of our addiction to fossil fuels, is the suffering in their wake an act of God, or the result of human structural violence? And if they wreak greatest havoc on the poorest and most wretched of the earth, what is the cause of that suffering? Mental illness may not be a violent structure created by human society (though I could be convinced otherwise). But if a brilliant and talented young man suffers from mental illness and turns to drug use to cope, and if our society maintains an absurdly ineffective and vindictive public policy around the sale and use of certain drugs, then is his death by overdose at least in part a result of structural violence?

I don’t know.

Why is there suffering? I just don’t know what the answer is. I’m pretty sure that even in a world entirely free of structural violence, my mom still would have collapsed one day while weeding the asparagus patch, and the aneurysm in her brain still would have killed her a couple of days later, just a few weeks short of her fifty-first birthday. I’m pretty sure that when I got around to trying to get pregnant at the ripe old age of thirty-four, my ovaries still would have been old souls that were no longer going to produce viable eggs, because in the law of averages, someone has to be an outlier, and that just happened to be me.

But I am also pretty sure that a whole lot of suffering in the world – so very much of it – is caused by structural violence. Which is another way of saying that a whole lot of the suffering in the world is caused by sin. That, of course, is a word which is sort of out of vogue these days, among progressive intellectuals at least. I think it’s a shame that it’s been so co-opted by the fundamentalist religious right-wing. Indeed, now that I think of it, “sin” has itself become a form of structural violence. But I’m comfortable reclaiming it, because I do think there is such a thing. I probably prefer Michael’s formulation (and I’m loosely paraphrasing here because I don’t know how to find this particular conversation on his Facebook page) – that sin is anything which takes us out of loving relationship with each other and God. Structural violence, sin, broken relationship …. however you want to define it, or whatever you want to call it, it seems to me that a whole lot of suffering is caused by it.

And where is God in all this? I think for a lot of folks that’s the hardest question when faced with inexplicable suffering. I know such suffering can cause some to lose their faith, or at least to question it. For me, actually, the opposite is true. For me, if sin is that which pulls us out of loving relationship, then God is that which puts us back together. And I know that even in the face of so much suffering in the world, there is also so much goodness and beauty and abundance. I know too, though I surely don’t understand the mystery of it, that somehow that goodness and beauty and abundance often flows right out of suffering, even the sort that results from sin. My God is the God of that goodness and beauty and abundance, even the kind that is forged in a crucible of suffering. Why God isn’t bigger than sin, why God can’t just vanquish sin and suffering in one fell swoop, I don’t know. Maybe God isn’t all-powerful in that way. Maybe God needs us as much as we need God. Maybe the more we’re in loving relationship with God – which is the same thing as saying the more we’re in loving relationship with each other -- the less power sin and suffering have over the world.

I surely could be wrong. But if faith is being sure of what we hope for*, then my faith in that God is like a rock, even in the face of inexplicable suffering.

edited to add: this is from Bart Campolo.


Anonymous said... high school thought about it in sort of an intellectual way as 'the problem of evil' to try to explain things to myself and as an apologetic college read NIGHT that spun me into a blue mood that lasted a dark winter term. seminary heard eli wiesel speak at a nearby university and was changed as rabbis will have that effect.

....and now...still try to stay in the strugle against violence structural, in myself, in my relationships and where ever else I encounter it

.....but am more able to let the mystery be.


michael caine said...

wow, you hit this one right on.

i have always wondered: if we could take care of all the unnecessary or humanly-created suffering, how much would be left? Surely, there would still be existential suffering and brokenness, if only for the limitations of our knowledge and ultimately our mortality. but if we got all the unnecessary suffering out of the way, maybe life would be appreciably easier to live?!?!

because, i often think, as you suggest, that MUCH of what we experience as inevitable suffering might be avoidable, might have antecedents in an interconnectedness or accountability we do not always clearly fathom or want to see. as you offer the example, cancer may stem from far distant mistreatments of our environment and tsunamis may result from how we're too dependent on fossil fuels.

but we still must die, and that will leave all but the most solitary leaving behind someone who is grieving.

for me the distinction, humbly held lightly, between unnecessary suffering and that which MIGHT be existential is important because it helps me remember where I am supposed to put my efforts...

keep writing and making us think and discuss-- your advent gift to us!


Ellen Skilton-Sylvester said...

Wow, Marta. This is such a beautiful piece of writing. And I love getting to know your mom more from it. It is, I think, the best discussion of the "why suffering?" dilemma I've ever read (and I'm not just saying that because you were willing to let me walk more of those 4 miles than usual this morning). I'm finding it healing to think about the structural violence that was a part of Mark's life that lead to much of his suffering -- that it was not just an individual or collective human failure, but also a structural/societal one that shaped his death. Michael is right; this is an Advent gift you have given us. Ellen

Marta said...

wanda, i gotta read wiesel. i was even thinking that as i wrote this ... " i should really shut up about suffering until i've read wiesel." obviously i didn't (shut up, that is), but maybe i should put him on my list soon.... thanks.

michael and ellen, i'm glad i can repay in some small way the gifts that both of you are to me these days.

Lorrin said...

Marta: this is so incisive and astoundingly clear on such murky questions. Your discussion of the broken down distinction between "regular" suffering and the suffering of structural violence is...amazing. The first part is also so sweet and evocative on your mom--and of course you were a PAGS major! I remember visiting my dear friend Laura at Earlham and marveling at what people got to do there and still call it college.

I've been stuck in lots of stuff over here and haven't read much of your Advent posting, but I plan to catch up on what I've missed. It is, truly, such a gift. Thank you!

Marta said...

oh lorrin, now i'm totally blushing! but thanks, it means a lot.

i was just thinking, actually, that the four of you -- wanda, michael, ellen, lorrin -- in a room with my mom ... what a freakin shame she had to die. that would have been SO MUCH FUN. ellen at least met her, though i don't know how well she remembers her. but oh lord, she would have loved all of you!

Juanita said... have a keen ability to tell the truth and walk through the deep, dark places while remembering that the joy and sorrow can and do coexist in our lives.

Somehow your post reminded me of Psalm 23:4. Many people of faith love this passage of the scriptures, but don't often talk about the "valley of the shadow of death." I have clung to it as an image of how God walks with us through the darkness.

Though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

She is with us and weeps with us. That walking alongside has been a huge comfort to me.

Thank you for sharing your gift.

Marta said...

oh juanita! your witness of faith in the face of inexplicable suffering .... just leaves me speechless. to receive these kind words from you is a gift i can only hope to deserve. thank you.

Claire said...

or even (as I think you are gesturing towards): structural violence as suffering not caused by human malfeasance (toxic waste; urban un-planning, fossil fuels) but all of that daily out-of-our-hands suffering we fail to acknowledge, fail to respond to with adequate care, fail to try to palliate because it's so endemic. I wish I could have met your mom too. This piece also makes me think so much of my dad, who was so happy in his last years of medical practice with the amazing Sister Chris at the St. Joseph Neighborhood Center in Rochester NY. He didn't have access to tests, expensive drugs, or much technology, but he could continue his life's work of trying to care for people in every way he could imagine and trying to fight for their needs outside a system designed to deny care to the ones who need it most. Even if he was feeling weak and just puttering around the center with the garden or paperwork or school physicals or saying hello to the volunteers or the clients coming in for tutoring, he felt like he was part of a project that lovingly cared for (all) people. So I agree, Marta, Sin is not too strong a word for a healthcare debate where no one even stops to say, wait a second, undocumented workers have the right of care too; or public policy that utterly fails to care for the mentally ill and then criminalizes their symptoms as they manifest in homelessness and drug use. Sin is not usually a word we progressive lovers of Peace and Justice feel comfortable using; I remember being told that it was not even really a properly Jewish concept (although we have our own fundamentalists too, who are just as hateful, and just as happy to point out sin in the lives of others), but I think you are right that we should think about using it more often, especially if it prods us towards Righteousness.

Marta said...

claire, your dad and my mom would have had a lot of fun together. i wish you had known her too. i'm blessed to have known marvin.

more and more i'm totally into reclaiming the language and images of faith. those words and images have endured for so long because they can speak truth that needs to be spoken. i'm tired of abdicating to the christofascists and the rest of the hate-mongerers....

Kate Haas said...

Marta, this was really good.

Holly said...

Marta, I'm so sorry about the loss of your mother. She sounds like an AMAZING person, and probably the kind of wonderful, supportive, awesome mother that I imagine you are being to your own children. You write to my heart, and I wish I could thank you in person ... or mostly thank you, sometimes my heart doesn't like to be so affected. :o) I admire your faith, your openness, and your beautiful, heartfelt writing. Peace be with you, now and always. Aloha, Holly

Marta said...

kate: thanks. as always.

holly: thanks so much for all your kind words! there's nothing better a writer likes to hear than that she has spoken in some meaningful way to someone. so thanks for letting me know.