I snapped at my best friend three days ago. I came pretty close to yelling at him and essentially accused him of being selfish, unfeeling, and disconnected from fellow creatures – unfairly, mind you. My best friend is none of those things. In fact, he is one of the nicest, kindest people I know and spends his days professionally helping human beings in distress. And patiently puts up with me, whether I’m rearranging his kitchen or pouring tirades upon his head. My tirades, if they have anything to do with him personally, never concern imperfections in the heart. His heart is pretty well made. Except last Thursday I did go there.
As the complexity of our internal swirlings go, I haven’t changed my mind about what I said to him, yet I’ve come to believe that I was wrong. At least, wrong to say it.
The immediate aftermath of my snapping was a persuasive speech – half apology, half passionate sermon. Half the length of Route 15. The proximate result was a better articulation in my own mind of why some most well-meaning wishes and prayers from some of the most well-meaning people make me cringe. Why there are things for which I don’t thank God and things for which I don’t ask. Why I might seem as ungrateful now as I was all those years ago (when I thought the world stank and it would be all God’s fault if He existed) but in a better mood – or just too undifferentiatingly grateful.
What the result was in my friend’s mind, I honestly don’t know.
Let me tell you what happened.
It was very simple. We were driving down on Rte. 15 and saw a long, hopeless-looking traffic jam on the opposite side. As we kept passing their unending, winding standstill, second after second, my friend sighed and whistled and said one of the most natural things for today’s motorist to say, “Wow. Thank God we’re not on that side!”
It’s not that I was especially taken aback. It’s just that he and I don’t let each other get away with anything. Plus we weren’t talking about anything important anyway. And so it began.
“Thank God for our fortune, eh? Be careful when you gloat. There’s usually a gridlock right down the road when you do that. It’s called karma.”
“I’m not gloating!” He protested. “Just grateful we’re not caught in a jam! What’s wrong with that? What am I supposed to do?”
“How about empathize with those who are?”
“I am. And glad I’m not one of them.” He grinned. It was still a joke. But that’s when it stopped being funny to me, and a chain of memories unspooled from somewhere in my head and began to slip down, clinking, link after link, in a heap before my mind’s eye. Voices. Emails. Over years past. Let us pray for those affected by this historic storm and thank the Good Lord for keeping safe us and our families. Oh, my dear, I heard about the crash – I thought you might have been caught in it, so I thank God it wasn’t you! Wow, poor sod – there but for the grace of God! We thank God for our continued safety and pray that the victims of recent violence find comfort and healing.
It has always hurt me somehow to hear these things, but I’ve never known how or even really why to tell people not be grateful for being all right. Isn’t it the most natural thing? Isn’t it the first duty: to turn around and thank the one who keeps you well, for being kept well? These are not people who gloat over someone else’s misfortune – these are mostly people who go out and do their best to help or at least offer up prayers for the unfortunate, people who are nice, people who mean well to all the suffering humanity. They’re just…glad they’re not among it. What’s wrong with that?
I looked at my friend, who was still grinning, and strained to find the words to explain my discomfort. “Aren’t you though?”
“I don’t know. Aren’t you gloating? I know you don’t mean to gloat, but to me it sort of comes out that way anyway – a little. It’s just like those times when we pray for the victims of some crime and thank God it wasn’t us, you know? I get it, but…it feels wrong.”
“Because if there is this necessary evil still in our temporal universe – its darkness and imperfection – if there is evil and someone must be caught in it, isn’t it…selfish to thank God it was not us but someone else?”
“Well…I’m not grateful they’re in trouble, but if someone’s in trouble I’m grateful it’s not me!”
“But why is it better?” I took a breath, piping myself down. “Why is it better that someone – not you – is suffering? If we’re thanking God for making it that way, we are sort of stating that it was a good thing to do – but it’s only good because it’s to our advantage, and our advantage is someone else’s disadvantage. I know I’m making it sound like a zero-sum game and it’s not exactly, but if suffering is a necessary — even if temporary — condition of our existence, then there are features of a zero-sum game in it. Someone had to be caught in a hurricane. Someone had to be born into a war zone. Let me put it this way: I think there is a difference between thanking God for something good and thanking God that something bad happened to somebody else. General gratitude for…the world is one thing. But when you attach your personal rejoicing to someone else’s disaster, it just sounds…like an antithesis. You know what I’m saying?”
“I suppose. But I am not wishing it on someone, I’m just saying… It’s like, ‘There but for the grace of God go I!’”
“Right! But you don’t!”
“I don’t what?”
“You don’t really ‘go there.’ With the grace of God. We don’t really go. Don’t you see? We are not really…separable that way. This whole Creation – and this whole suffering humanity. I mean, of course, we are, in a sense. We are separate enough that when Joe Schmo loses a leg, you don’t lose your leg, so you can pick him up and carry him. But we are not so separate that when Joe Schmo loses a leg he just lies there in the mud and you keep walking on your way. You pick him up and carry him. There were four legs between the two of you, and now there are three. You know? What I mean is, when someone is caught in a hurricane or born into a war zone, it’s not THEIR problem with the rest of us having been spared! We don’t keep going thanks to the Grace of God, as if THEY’ve been deprived of it – which is what the expression subtly implies. I mean, we do keep going – but we don’t. We all slow down a little, so to speak. It’s everybody’s burden. All this joy and this pain, and this love – it flows through us all. It makes us…not separate.”
Our argument in the car fizzled out at that point, but I’ve been thinking on and off about it – partly because I felt bad about calling my unselfish friend selfish, partly because it clarified me to myself a little. What I wanted from him wasn’t perfect compassion. He is compassionate enough. I wanted him to perceive reality my way.
The way I feel about others’ suffering is not new to me. It didn’t come with the discovery of God. In fact, it’s probably a holdover from the time I was looking for God – for the reason and meaning of the suffering I kept seeing and feeling all around me, inside me and outside me. I was never the one to ask, “Why me?” Because the answer in my head was, “Why not you?” I was always the one to ask, “Why?” Looking for the reasons of it all. For all of us poor sods, because your pain is no better than my pain.
But that’s the side effect of my journey to meaning – or just my nature, maybe, and it doesn’t make me more effective in combating your pain. The people I quoted, who send up those prayers and send out those emails, are some of the most dedicated to making the world better of everyone I’ve met. They sit by your bedside and dress your wounds in the war zone even if they weren’t born into it, they teach the children who have no books and adults who have no opportunities, they build homes for those who sleep on the streets, they pray from the heart for those whose lives they profoundly disapprove of. They feed the hungry. When they thank God for being safe, they imply gratitude for being able to spend all their strength on helping those who weren’t kept safe. They are not selfish. They are not separate. They are not gloating.
I am coming to a place, now that I am more conscious in thinking about it, where I might simply rest easier when I hear people be grateful for their comfort at the tail end of sympathy for others’ suffering. I think maybe it’s just an expression of a certain type of awareness. I might simply let them live their balance of strength and weakness, connectedness and individual agency, fear and relief in their own way. And I don’t have to force myself to feel grateful that another waterfall of pain has crashed nearby and missed my head. I have my own balance. I can let myself feel that pain in whatever way I do. Because these days the meaning is more easily forthcoming. And we can do this. We can deal. Among all of us, there’ll be a few legs left, so those who were safe will carry those who were not.