My friend died yesterday.
Grief sometimes has a way of wafting through the cracks of our chambers and lying in wait. A dark heaviness. A soundlessly creeping shroud that descends upon us and subdues our senses. An impenetrable presence that stalks us and shows itself in the most unexpected of places. This type of pain is often territorial, too. It knows we must keep moving, daily tasks must be tended, and sometimes life can even present a light-hearted moment: a brief reprieve from the cloak of sorrow. And that’s when grief can swing its iron mace, striking us hard for daring to defy its weighty presence.
When somebody dies, we often ask or are asked, how old were they? Were they in good health? Was it unexpected? Our fears are silently soothed when we learn they had been struggling with heart disease or malignancy or any other form of poor health for years. Knowledge of their advanced age or deteriorating body makes us feel just a little more impervious to death. It puts a little more distance between us and disaster. And we like that. We don’t like suffering. We don’t like uncertainty. By nature, we are pain evaders.
We have a strange way of responding to calamity, illness, and tragedy. We go through all sorts of antics to explain it away. To distance ourselves from it. To assure ourselves it won’t touch us. The problem, of course, is that in trying to avoid pain, we often avoid truly being with the people who are experiencing it. The book of Job is a good example of this.
Job is one of those books that some people love, and some people love to hate. It’s often discussed from the perspective of “why do bad things happen to good people.” There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course. It’s a necessary question. However, if the only lesson we get from Job is about how to respond to our pain, I think we are missing a good half of the story.
Just as I am sometimes Jobs, I am sometimes one of Job’s friends. And that’s an appalling thought. Job suddenly suffers the devastating blow of calamity after calamity: first to his entire estate, then to all of his children, and finally to his body. As the news of his torment spreads abroad, three of his friends come to console him. They are on the right track at first, for they sit and dwell with him in silence for seven days and nights. They are not bad people; they are his friends, and they want to help. Unfortunately, after the seventh day, they decide to speak. What comes out of their mouth is not a consolation to Job, however; it is a well-intentioned attempt to make themselves feel better. An attempt to create distance between themselves and suffering.
All three cling to the idea that dis-ease is preventable; that suffering is the result of wickedness; that Job must have done something to anger God. If Job repents God will restore him, they say. Job’s friends did what I often do: cling to the notion that I will be impervious to tragedy if I stick to the rules. The friends want to provide Job with a solution to his pain; in part, because in fixing his problems, they will vicariously fortify their perceived position of invulnerability. In a way, I can be one of Job’s friends because I am scared. Instead of being with a person in pain, instead of walking with them through their agony, I often try to fix them. I think this impulse is a result love, but suspect it can also be a result of fear. And when I’m motivated by fear, I seldom am capable of loving.
The movie Love & Other Drugs portrays the concept of fixing versus loving well. The movie isn’t your average romcom. Maggie Murdock has early onset Parkinson’s disease. In a roundabout way, she finds a soulmate in Jamie Roundall. The trouble is, although Jamie loves her, his fixation on finding her a cure prevents him from being with her, and it nearly destroys their relationship. While his motive is well-intentioned, his purpose is to secure the possibility of a longer relationship with a physically stronger Maggie; the result is distance. He is motivated, in part, by fear of losing her; and, in looking for the cure, Jamie sacrifices the time he has now. Jamie sacrifices building a relationship with Maggie in the present and instead imagines what a relationship might be like with a healthy Maggie in the future.
I wonder how often I do that to my friends when they are in pain. Friends who suffer physical and mental anguish and need me to be with them in the here and now, but instead I envision how to solve their problems; I scheme about how to “help” them: in part because I fear the discomfort of pain and uncertainty myself. By providing a fix for them, I vicariously tell myself I found a cure for suffering in general.
Perhaps a lesson I need to learn from Job is that he didn’t need advice; he didn’t need a theology of why bad things happen; he needed someone up for the hard task of enduring the uncertainty and sitting beside him; he needed a friend. Am I up to the task of being that friend?