| Fire in the Soul |
By Joan Borysenko
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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Why Do Bad Things
The only thing that we can know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.
I had almost finished the first draft of this chapter late in June 1990 when a tragedy led our family to ask the age-old question: “Why? If there is any love in this universe, why do bad things happen?”
My husband, Myrin, and I were sound asleep when we awakened with a start at 5:30 in the morning, the way a mother does when her baby begins to cry. Although our “baby,” Andrei, was a young man of seventeen, we awakened instantly at his cries of distress. We ran down the hall and burst into his room along with our older son, Justin. Andrei was holding his chest as if his heart had been torn out. He was screaming, “Why? Why? No! No!” as a torrent of tears ran from his sleepy blue eyes down tanned cheeks that had suddenly gone chalk white. Andrei’s anguish was so great that it seemed an accusation of life, a challenge to God.
Andrei had just received the phone call I’ve always feared the most. The one that would tell me that a loved one had died suddenly. His best friend, Mat, had died earlier that night when his car careened out of control on a dangerous, dark curve made slippery by the summer rains. Although an expert team of paramedics helicoptered him to our regional trauma center, Mat died before he even reached the hospital. Andrei’s anguished “why?” was repeated by most of the teenagers who gathered at our home to grieve during the first few days after the tragedy. Why Mat? Why the one who never had a critical word for anyone, the one who was so grateful for life, so accepting of the uniqueness and potential of everyone he met? “Why the very best of us?” they asked.
At odds with Andrei and the others, one young woman admonished, “Don’t even ask that question. It doesn’t have an answer that we could possibly understand.” This teenager in white sneakers and red socks had put her finger directly on the pulse of the sacred mystery. We cannot know. But for human beings the need to know goes hand in hand with restructuring our world after tragedy.
Tragedy brings forth the need to create meaning—to tell new stories—that can reweave the frayed ends of life into a coherent whole. Our ability to tell these stories is positively linked with recovery, according to the research of UCLA-based psychologist Shelley Taylor. Studying people whose lives had been disrupted by misfortunes that ranged from rape to life-threatening illness, Dr. Taylor found that those who readjusted well incorporated three coping strategies into their recovery: a search for meaning in the experience, an attempt to gain mastery over the event in particular and life in general, and a recouping of self-esteem after they had suffered some loss or setback.
Dr. Taylor was awed by the remarkable resilience of human nature and the deep reservoir of strength that tragedy taps. She observed that, rather than folding in times of crisis, most people have the innate capacity to recover from monumental problems, readjusting to life not only as well as, but even better than, before the tragedy occurred. And the meaning we ascribe to these dark nights of the soul is central to how we emerge from them.
What does it mean to lose a loved one, to get cancer, to be raped at knifepoint, to be molested as a child? If our answers create negative, fearful stories, then recovery from trauma is impeded. Research indicates that people who believe that they are helpless victims are more likely to remain anxious, depressed and angry than people who retain a feeling of control. A helpless, blaming attitude has in turn been linked to decreased immune function, increased heart disease and susceptibility to a whole panoply of stress-related disorders.
Equally paralyzing is self-blame, the pessimistic triad of feelings that University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman sums up as “It’s all my fault, I mess up everything I do, and it’s the story of my life.” Pessimism compromises immune function, makes it difficult to learn from our experiences and leaves us depressed and powerless. If the stories we weave from our tragedies are more optimistic (“I don’t know why this happened, but I can deal with it,” or “Someday I’ll see the value in this situation,” or “I’m already learning from this experience”), then both physical and mental health are optimized.
During the seven years that I directed a mind/body clinical program at Boston’s Beth Israel and New England Deaconess hospitals, I had the chance to hear hundreds of “Why me?” stories. Most people came to the clinic at a point in their lives where illness had presented a new and often daunting challenge. Frequently their unquestioned ideas and assumptions about life were shattered by the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, the reality of living with multiple sclerosis or a head injury, or by the seeming endlessness of fear or depression. The treatment we offered was a group program that met for two hours a week over a ten-week period.
Patients were taught to use mental techniques including meditation and focused imagination that can produce healthful shifts in bodily physiology. They were also trained in the program of stretching, relaxation, self-awareness, breaking the anxiety cycle, reframing the meaning of their experience, exercise and nutrition that I presented in Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
One group of patients in particular is etched in my memory. It was the first session of the ten-week program, and people were explaining why they had come. One woman had migraine headaches so severe that she was afraid of losing her job because of repeated absences from work. Another woman had a neurological disorder that could not be specifically diagnosed. Every time the symptoms of mild disorientation began, she panicked. Was it a brain tumor that had evaded detection? Would the symptoms get worse and make it impossible for her to function? There was a man with chronic back pain and a woman who was an incest survivor with a host of stress-related complaints linked to that childhood trauma. Two others had diarrhea and belly pain from irritable bowel syndrome, and several others suffered from panic attacks accompanied by bodily problems such as high blood pressure or irregular heart beats.
The last person to talk was “Leslie.” An attractive, well-groomed brunette in her early forties, Leslie was a single mother who worked in a bank while raising two young daughters. She looked around the circle as she summarized in a soft yet strong voice her reasons for coming. “My husband died about three years ago. He was only thirty-nine, but he had a stroke. He was in Spaulding [a Boston-area rehabilitation hospital] for several months and then he came home. He was partially paralyzed on his right side and couldn’t work. But, you know, he had a great attitude. He was happy to be alive.” Leslie stopped to blink back the tears and clear her throat before she continued. “Just after dinner one night he had a second stroke and died. Peacefully. And in my arms.”
Leslie paused for a moment to collect herself, “I hadn’t worked since our two girls, Cindy and Ellen, were born, but after Bob died I got a job in a bank. It was a tough adjustment all around, but we were doing okay. Then about a year later I found a lump in my right breast. It was malignant, and there were three positive lymph nodes—not so many that I feel hopeless, but I also know I’m not out of the woods yet. I’ve had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and now I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to recover. I want to live to see my daughters grow up.”
There was a stunned silence in the group as people absorbed Leslie’s story. “Janet,” the woman whose migraines were so disruptive, spoke first. Tears glistened in her eyes as she nodded at Leslie. “My headaches are painful and they make life unpredictable, but when I listened to you I realized how much I have to be grateful for. I’m amazed by your courage.”
I was amazed by Leslie’s courage, too. When I had first interviewed her so that we could decide together whether a mind/body program was appropriate for her needs, I asked her the same question that I routinely ask patients with potentially serious illness. “Even though most of the time there’s no way to know why we get sick, most people have some kind of theory anyway. What about you?”
Leslie smiled, “Do you mean do I ask, ‘Why me’?” I nodded, and she continued. “At first I did, but then I figured why not me? How can we really know the reasons why anything happens? Why does some alcoholic child-molester live until eighty-five while babies die? My mother used to tell me that bad things happened to people because they were being punished for their sins, but all you have to do is look around you to see how dumb that theory is! The truth is that I don’t know why Bob died and then I got cancer, Joan. All I know for sure, deep in my heart, is that somehow, in some way that I may never understand in this life, it is ultimately for the good.” I could hear the sincerity in Leslie’s voice that told me she was speaking from her innermost truth, not from some fearful rationalization. I told her so.
“I’m certainly not a fatalistic Pollyanna. I’m scared,” she continued. “Some days I shake myself when I wake up, thinking that I’m caught in some awful nightmare.” Leslie paused and sighed. “When I realize I’m awake, I have to adjust to this damn cancer, to my loneliness, all over again. I wonder if I’ll live a normal lifespan or die young. And if I live I wonder what kind of life I’ll have, whether I’ll ever fall in love again, whether any man would marry me. And I wonder how it will be for the children if I’m sick, if I die. Then I start to think, ‘Well, this is what’s happening. This is the role I’ve been given to play. I’m going to do it as consciously and gracefully as I can.’ ”
“Jay,” a patient I met at about the same time as Leslie, had a radically different attitude. An extremely successful artist from New York, Jay was a gay man in his mid-thirties whose work had garnered national acclaim. Diagnosed with AIDS about six months before we met, Jay had lost some weight but was still working and feeling reasonably good. He had a strong support system of friends, but his emotional state was perilous as a result of his beliefs about why he had AIDS.
When Jay asked himself the question “Why me?” his answer was based on old, unexamined religious beliefs left over from childhood. Although not religious as an adult, Jay had been raised a Southern Baptist. In his desperation over his own illness and his grief for other friends who were ill or dead from AIDS, Jay regressed to a state of childlike helplessness. His old religious beliefs surfaced with fresh power. He deduced that the Bible was right to condemn homosexuals after all, and, if it was right on that score, then it might follow that he would go to hell for his sexual practices.
Jay was tormented day and night by his guilt. His behavior was like a parody of a fundamentalist tent preacher hurling blame, fear, fire and brimstone at himself. I suggested that Jay seek the help of a minister trained in pastoral counseling to help him separate some of his intrinsic fear and pessimism—the result of being raised in an abusive home—from his fear of God. As I discussed in Guilt Is the Teacher, Love Is the Lesson, a person’s view of God as loving and merciful as opposed to punitive and judgmental correlates highly with self-esteem. Our self-esteem, in turn, correlates with how we were treated by our parents. If our parents were loving and we grew up feeling worthy and good about ourselves, we feel that God is also good. If our parents were harsh and authoritarian and we grow up feeling bad about ourselves, then we are likely to feel that God is punitive, as our parents were.
Since Jay lived in New York, we saw each other only intermittently on his visits to friends who lived in Boston. One day, after a hiatus of a few months, he came to our session with an armload full of books on self-healing. Jay’s helpless, pessimistic attitude had lifted, and he looked strong and vibrant. He told me that he now believed that his self-hatred had created the conditions that made him susceptible to AIDS, and that he should be able to reverse those conditions by loving himself. He had positive affirmations hung all over his house and was deeply engaged in a program of imagery for self-healing.
Frankly, I was worried about him. His sudden shift in attitude seemed like a Band-Aid hastily applied to an open wound. In his misery and psychic pain, Jay had too easily accepted the simplistic notion of being 100 percent responsible for creating his own reality. It gave him a temporary sense of safety. The idea that what we create we can uncreate is one of those partial truths that can be very injurious. At the extreme of this philosophy, all illness is perceived as a failure, and a temporary illusion of power is created by the attitude that we can cure what we have caused.
I encouraged Jay to think about the wide range of alternate answers to the question “Why me?” that lay between the two extremes he had subscribed to thus far. His old beliefs gave God all the power. His new beliefs gave Jay all the power. He left the session upset with my failure to endorse his new point of view. Because my major interest is the intersection of psychology, medicine and spirituality—and because I endorse the constructive use of meditation, affirmation and participation in our own healing—Jay assumed that I would agree with his “New Age” philosophy, a label I abhor because it has been used with so little precision that it is effectively meaningless.
While we certainly participate in creating the events of our lives, the idea that we are 100 percent responsible for creating our own reality is a psychologically and spiritually impoverished notion. In my experience, when patients with this belief are unable to cure themselves, they often feel like failures or undergo a painful crisis of faith. While such crises can be important invitations to deeper healing when there is time to pursue the ramifications, they can be a serious blow for people coping with life-threatening illnesses that may afford neither the time nor the energy to pick up the pieces of a shattered faith.
Every once in a while Jay phoned from New York with a progress report. The symptoms of his AIDS gradually worsened, and, despite the help of a therapist, Jay’s psychological state also deteriorated. He felt helpless and unworthy because he had not been able to cure himself physically or to find peace emotionally. When Jay became so weak that he realized death was imminent, his faith in being able to create his own reality crumbled, and he fell back to his original belief that AIDS was a punishment.
Like Leslie and Jay, most of us have faced, or will face, life crises. At that time our basic beliefs about ourselves and the Universe—the sometimes only half-conscious scripts by which we live—will determine how we face our dark nights of the soul. Will they bring us closer to Home or will they drive us into the wilderness of fear and isolation? More than any other question, “Why me?” puts us face to face with what we really believe.
A First Story, as I presented the idea in the parable that opens this section, is an archetype—a master story—that each person must live through in the process of growing their soul and finding their way back to God. For anyone who has ever read the Old Testament, the story of Job is certainly the archetype of “Why me?” It asks the question why, if there is any fairness in the universe, do bad things happen to good people? Job’s is one of the oldest stories on record. Scholars believe that it was written between 800 and 300 B.C. and is based on a much older Sumerian version of the legend dating back to about 2000 B.C.
The story of Job concerns a righteous man, according to the Bible the most esteemed man on earth in God’s sight. Job is suddenly beset by terrible suffering when Satan asks God to test Job’s loyalty. In one day God arranges for all Job’s ten children to die, for his vast herds of animals to be killed and finally for Job to be stricken with hideous, painful boils. Job then sits with three friends for a week, fruitlessly debating the question of why bad things happen to good people. As with many biblical stories, the answer is not immediately obvious. It is up to the reader to ferret out the teaching, a process that is very valuable because it makes you think.
After years of thinking about the story of Job, I believe that the parable is best understood not in terms of the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but in terms of the question “Do the trials Job suffers deepen his understanding about the nature of God?” According to both the King James and Revised Standard Bibles (the excerpts below are from the Revised Standard version), Job learns nothing from his suffering except that he must repent of even complaining. This thoughtful, righteous man ends up groveling in shame before the awesome power of a tyrannical God. But according to the more meticulous translation of Hebrew scholar and poet Stephen Mitchell, Job instead has a wondrous, freeing revelation about the true nature of the divine.
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so this man was the greatest of all the people in the East.
The Old Testament narrator’s prologue next shifts to God’s yearly gathering with the angels, a conclave at which Satan is also present. In the Old Testament, “Satan” is only rarely used (four times, to be exact) to mean a divine being with evil intent. Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst John Sanford, in his excellent book Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, discusses the more common use of “satan,” a noun meaning “adversary” or “accuser”; as a verb it means to “persecute by hindering free forward movement.” In the secular sense, any kind of pain, illness or loss is a satan with which we must wrestle to discover our wholeness, our authenticity as creative, self-aware human beings.
Sanford points out that in the Old Testament God himself sometimes functions as a satan, performing the necessary job of obstruction so that we must pause to consider our lives in a new light. In the story of Job, Satan and God are two beings on good terms, in collusion with one another. The “Accusing Angel,” as Stephen Mitchell translates “Satan” from the Hebrew, informs God that he’s been walking around the earth “here and there” checking out what’s happening. God immediately wants to know if the Accuser has seen his marvelous servant Job, for “there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.”
Satan then lives up to the literal translation of his name. He ponders an important psychospiritual question, really the most important question there is about a human being. Is Job really a holy man, one who knows the completeness of himself and therefore knows God. Or is he just a goody-goody, invested in looking holy, singing God’s praises only because his life is sailing along so smoothly? Satan is not suggesting that Job might be evil but rather that he might be unconscious.
Satan is posing the same question that a depth psychologist might ask. Is Job using his talents, expressing his feelings and living his life authentically, or is he simply identifying with an idealized notion of what he thinks a good person is? In the unthinking desire to be “good” we risk disowning all the parts of ourselves—including healthy emotions and talents—that were ever shamed by parents, teachers, clergy or society. Our uniqueness gradually gets relegated to the unconscious, to what C. G. Jung called the shadow, and in the course of growing up we get progressively more identified with the mask or “false self” we wear to get other people’s approval. (This process of losing ourselves is discussed in depth in my second book, Guilt Is the Teacher, Love Is the Lesson.)
So, Satan’s accusation of Job puts his authenticity—his wholeness—to the test, as life does time and time again for each of us. Satan asks God whether Job doesn’t have good reason to sing his praises:
Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.
God replies to Satan: “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” That same day, Satan arranges the theft and burning of Job’s herds, the slaughtering of many of his servants, and the “accidental” deaths of all Job’s ten children. Job is the very model of patience and forbearance in the face of this enormous suffering. His only comment is: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job’s initial attitude of surrender has given rise to the common expression “to have the patience of Job.” An erroneous expression, if you read the rest of the parable.
God is smug with satisfaction at Job’s meek response. He says to Satan: “He still holds fast his integrity [Mitchell translates this as innocence], although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.”
But Satan is not at all impressed by Job’s initial show of faith. As a well-trained depth psychologist might do, he muses over whether Job is acting from his integrity—his wholeness—or from a false mask of goodness. He presses the question and says to God:
“Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And God said to Satan: “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
Satan then covers poor Job’s whole body with boils. Job, still manifesting the patience he is unduly famous for, simply sits in the dust, scratching himself with a pottery shard. His wife is less patient: “Do you still hold fast your integrity [innocence]? Curse God, and die.”
But cling to his innocence Job does for seven days and seven nights while three friends sit in silence to console him for his terrible losses. Finally Job cries out in anguish;
Let the day perish wherein I was born and the night which said, a man-child is conceived. . . . Let the stars of its dawn be dark . . . because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hide trouble from my eyes . . . . Why did I not die at birth? . . . Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should suck? . . . For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.
Stop for a moment and let the power of those words sink in. Have you ever felt this way? If Job’s poetic lament awakened the memory of a dark night of your own, where do you think your suffering came from? Did you ask and answer the question “Why me?” You might like to take a few minutes to reflect upon your experience in writing. We will return to the parable of Job together later in the chapter, after we have had a chance to position, in both a psychological and religious framework, the question of why bad things happen to good people.
A doughnut-shaped greeting card that I once sent to a friend defined optimism and pessimism succinctly. It said, “The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut and the pessimist sees the hole.” When we get down to our beliefs about why bad things happen, optimists and pessimists indeed see the doughnut differently.
Psychologists classify people as optimists or pessimists based on how they answer the question “Why me?” The pessimist is a helpless sort who explains his plight with three characteristic arguments: internal, stable and global. The pessimist believes: It’s all my fault (internal), it’s the story of my life (stable) and I mess up everything I do (global).1 Jay, the AIDS patient whom you read about earlier in this chapter, was a pessimist. Like all pessimists, he tended to be chronically anxious, depressed and guilty since he felt helpless to keep bad things from happening.
If the psychological pessimist like Jay beats his breast and laments, “I am worthless, life is hopeless and it’s all my own damn fault,” his religious pessimism takes the argument one step further to, “And God is going to get me for it. I’m doomed.”2
Religions that lead us to experiences of interconnectedness and deep participation with one another and the divine are bridges to the spiritual. They direct us to that indwelling center—the Self—in which safety, communion, awe, gratitude, compassion, joy and wisdom are matters of experience rather than dogma. The core of all great religious traditions is essentially the same—to connect deeply and thankfully with life by loving ourselves, one another and God. Jesus summed up the teachings of Christianity as being the same as the primary teaching of the Pharisaic Judaism of his time: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
A problem arises in religious teachings, however, when fear is used in an attempt to inculcate love. This tactic is an obvious impossibility that defies common sense and defiles what it is to be loving. Hearkening back to our previous discussion of God as father, a parent who attempts to criticize and threaten a child into being polite, loving and respectful generally produces a helpless, ashamed and angry offspring. The child may put on a mask of niceness, politeness and piety, but underneath is a seething volcano of resentment, and guilt for feeling that way. If our secular psychology has figured out this much, it is a good bet that God knew it long ago.
Looking back to your own answer to the question “Why me?” are you a psychological pessimist like Jay who helplessly blames yourself for the problems of your life, or are you an optimist like Leslie who believes that life’s challenges are part of your psychological and spiritual growth? Are you a religious pessimist or a spiritual optimist? Jay’s pessimistic theory was that his illness was proof that he was a sinner destined for eternal punishment. Leslie’s theory about her illness is much more benign. Her strength is in the admission “I don’t know why these bad things happened,” coupled with her faith that the pain she experiences will someday be revealed as part of a larger wholeness.
Albert Einstein’s view of life was similar to Leslie’s. To Einstein the universe was mysterious and magnificent, awesome and holy—a “great eternal riddle” that is only partially knowable. The quantum mechanical view of the universe that Einstein introduced in 1905 rocked the world of science. Instead of a machine-like universe where separate factors operate by simple cause and effect, the quantum mechanical revolution that Einstein began speaks to the notion that all things are interrelated in one great field of energy. At some level, everything is actually part of an interconnected Whole.
Einstein’s genius for apprehending creation through mathematics led him to the physical/mystical understanding that the idea that we are separate entities is simply an “optical delusion of our consciousness.” What, then, would Einstein have said in answer to the question “Why me?” In his luminous book Recovering the Soul, physician Larry Dossey relates that, during a serious illness, Einstein was asked if he was afraid of death. He replied, “I feel such a sense of solidarity with all living things that it does not matter to me where the individual begins and ends.” Dossey continues,
Where did the individual begin and end for Einstein? The boundaries of the person were seemingly far-flung. We get a hint of this view in his attitude about freedom of the will, in which he reveals his belief that we have unseverable ties with all the things and events of the world—an affinity which is so intimate that the entire question of individual freedom is nonsensical. Our concept of freedom of the will in one sense is very limited, implying an isolated individual situated in the here-and-now who can exercise it. Einstein does not share this local concept. For him, freedom of the will is tied to an endless chain of events extending far into the past in an indefinitely large expansion (p. 147).
To Einstein, Jay’s notion that we are 100 percent responsible for creating our own reality would have been too simpleminded. Who is the “I” separate from the “we” who has the hubris to think that it acts in isolation? Strangers wrote to Einstein from all over the world about their hopes and dreams, their suffering and fears. At one point Einstein was asked what he thought the most important question was that a human being needed to answer. His reply was, “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” And indeed, our answer to that question is the cornerstone on which many of our values and beliefs inevitably rest. If we believe that the universe is unfriendly and that our very souls are in danger, peace will be elusive at best.
What is your answer to the question “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” Hopefully, in returning our attention to the plight of Job, you can think about your response to this critical question and perhaps gain some new insights into your most basic beliefs.
The Book of Job goes on to provide considerable insight into how people think about the question of whether the universe is a friendly place or not. After Job’s stirring soliloquy of suffering and misery that we read a few pages back, his three friends sit with him in silence for a week, pondering his situation. It is clear from the subsequent conversation that Job’s friends are absolutely terrified. After all, Job is supposedly a just man, but he has been sorely afflicted. Why? What are the implications of his suffering to their belief system?
In commentary that accompanies his translation of The Book of Job, Stephen Mitchell points out that if Job is suffering even though he is a righteous man, then the friends are left with only two conclusions. Either God is unjust (and the universe is therefore a very unfriendly place) or suffering has nothing to do with whether or not a person has sinned (the universe is also potentially unfriendly since anything can happen to anyone). The most popular explanation among the friends, and the only one in which their limited thinking perceives safety, is that Job is a sinner who is therefore being punished. As theologian Elaine Pagels points out in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent, and as Jay demonstrated in his response to AIDS, most people prefer guilt to helplessness to the extent that it feels empowering. At least if something bad is happening it’s your own fault; by extension, if you’re really, really good, then bad things won’t happen.
Since the belief that God is just and people suffer only when they sin is the explanation that superficially minimizes helplessness, Job’s three friends take turns haranguing him and trying to get him to confess his sins. Eliphaz the Temanite speaks to Job of the harshness of God, the inevitability of human sin and the intrinsic worthlessness of human nature. Once again, the imagery of the Old Testament poet is strong and vivid: “Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error.” Bildad the Shuhite continues to discourse on the inevitable wages of sin: “Yea, the light of the wicked is put out. . . . Terrors frighten him on every side, and chase him at his heels. . . . His roots dry up beneath, and his branches wither above.”
Job, however, is having none of this. He knows that he hasn’t sinned and is thus confronted with the unsavory possibility that there is no justice based on righteousness: “Though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. . . . therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.”
Then, much to Job’s astonishment, God speaks to him from a whirlwind and asks, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job’s ego is getting its comeuppance. What hubris to think we can know the divine plan and, with our limited sight that sees “but through a glass darkly,” as the Apostle Paul put it, create a blueprint for God to obey.
God goes on to enumerate all his powers and to speak of both the majesty and terror of nature at great length. Job is essentially speechless, and we are left to imagine how he was affected by this powerful meeting, based on the strength of just a few lines that he utters in response to God. His simple comment, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know,” says volumes about how it is impossible to comprehend the infinite with a finite mind.
Job’s last words to God in standard translations of the parable are “I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Mitchell, in stark contrast, comments that the verb that has been translated “despise” actually means “reject” or “regard as of little value.” Furthermore, the object of the verb is not “myself.” Mitchell proposes that a sounder interpretation, first suggested in an ancient Syriac translation, would be: “Therefore I take back (everything I said.)” As for repenting in dust and ashes, Mitchell’s interpretation of Job’s last words have to do instead with comfort in his mortality.
“I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I take back everything I said, comforted that I am dust” suggests that the wonderful new understanding of which Job previously spoke has revised his previous ideas about God. The standard translators, however, rather than being true to the Hebrew text, rendered Job’s last words in line with the religiously pessimistic preconceptions of orthodox Christianity. This viewpoint holds that self-deprecation, guilt and shame are the appropriate responses to avert the wrath of the righteous, ill-tempered Jehovah.
Groveling in submission before the hideous power of the Almighty, a kind of “Yes, Boss, I’ll do anything—just lay off” mentality, would be an anticlimactic end to the power of this poetic First Story. Mitchell has a different interpretation:
When Job says, “I had heard of you with my ears; but now I have seen you,” he is no longer a servant, who fears God and avoids evil. He has faced evil, has looked straight into its face and through it, into a vast wonder of love. . . . Job’s comfort at the end is in his mortality. The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama as delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin (pp. xxvii–xxviii).
Through the years I have had the opportunity to talk with dozens of near-death experiencers who, like Job, have found comfort in their mortality. After returning from clinical death, these people—whether Jews, Christians, atheists or agnostics—have described the experience of dying as “like taking off a heavy suit of clothes,” “waking up from a dream,” “encountering indescribable radiance and bliss,” “being connected with all things,” “having total knowledge,” “seeing how every event in my life made complete sense.”
I believe that the First Story of Job is an invitation to come face to face with our own ideas about suffering and death, and, like Job, to see God with new eyes. Do we suffer even though God is loving, as Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, because the universe is still incompletely formed and pockets of chaos exist in which bad things happen to good people? Or is the universe a perfectly ordered freedom play in which there are no accidents? Do we suffer because an authoritarian father God punishes us for our sins, or because we are the helpless/hapless authors of our own fate?
If, like Job, we plumb the depths of our dark nights and catch a true glimpse of the divine, perhaps we will indeed be comforted that we are dust. The drama of this body we hold so dear may then appear to be but one act in a cosmic play of epic proportions. Transformed by the eternal radiance in whose stories we grow and ripen, perhaps we might then accept our suffering as the seeds of an awakening.
I hope that in the course of the chapters that follow, the way in which you have added your own stories about suffering to God’s, and come closer to or moved further from that radiance, will become evident. For if we are willing to give up our stories of fear and gaze with new eyes into the face of love, perhaps someday we will find a new meaning in our suffering and, as Kahlil Gibran promises in The Prophet, “come to bless the darkness as we have blessed the light.”
Excerpted from Fire in the Soul , by Joan Borysenko . Copyright (c) 1993 by Joan Borysenko . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top