An interesting, disturbing dialogue has commenced amongst several of my thoughtful blogger friends, Odious, Jack, and Kate, on the subject of, well, wretchedness: Why and when one is most susceptible to it (or, blessedly, not), how one attempts to keep it at bay, and the compellingly asserted possibility that it is an unnecessary pain born and sustained only by a lack of faith in the overarching divine goodness available to us if only we should believe it’s there and actually meant for us. I recognize my own experience in Odious’s self-doubt, apathy, feelings of guilt over being apathetic, even in his attempts to blur out with over-stimulation and constant fidgeting that ugly self-realization perpetually lurking in his periphery.
This…. longing for goodness is so striking that I worry a great deal about my lack of it. I do what is right grudgingly at best and with a feeling that everyone had better appreciate the sacrifice I’m making in trying to be a good person, rather than chasing joyfully after goodness without a thought of anything else. I am not attracted to the Good; or if I am, I keep it hidden, to disguise my failure to be good as successful apathy. This self-deception is too often triumphant. It is, of course, pride that keeps me from confessing my desire, and I’ve so suppressed it that I feel it only sporadically anymore. It takes quite a shove to make me realize how much I would like to be good.
I don’t know about anyone else, but Pascal’s “distraction from wretchedness” becomes more and more my motivation. I find myself singing, not because I like the song, but because old iniquities are coming to mind and I don’t want to remember them. I read while I watch movies, because with only one distraction I might notice my fallen state, and the knowledge of how low I am is intolerable.
However, Jack’s position, that truly believing in the benevolence and even love of God cultivates a happiness magnificent enough to dwarf the insecurities, worries, and, yes, wretchedness, that come from a blinkered preoccupation with the secular, seems not just a mollifying sentiment but a wise and practical tenet to live by.
If we really believed, I mean really, experientially believed that we were personally loved by the Being Who created the universe, would we really be bothered if someone disagreed with us, belittled us, or really, harmed us in any way? Would it matter? The insecurity that compels us to lash out in despair would finally be resolved. Why would we need earthly validation if we knew that our real selves — not the narrow mean selves we’re forced into being — were forever irrevocably loved.
Indeed, I suspect that if I ever prove capable of taking Jack’s invocations to heart successfully, I will look back on my hours (months? Years? Decades?) of anxiety and dissatisfaction as needless capitulation to pointless doubt, hours spent in godlessness, while God was right there had I just been wise and courageous enough to believe. But it is hard to believe.
Not “in God”— Since the first time it was mentioned to me in a ghetto Baptist school when I was five, it has never been difficult for me to believe in the existence of a God; this probably indicates more my sloppy and unscientific nature rather than any effortless inclination to religiosity. No, it’s hard to believe that the belief in God’s love is enough to assuage the sting of even the pettiest insult, let alone the devastation of real human tragedy. I’m not assuming Ivan Karamazov’s stand of, “how can we believe in a God who allows babies to be murdered?”—he made his point very convincingly and even so was soundly mo’ded by the gentle and persistent devotion of Alexei. I can accept that God allows suffering and I wouldn’t assert something so myopic as that this proves His lack of benevolence or even His absence altogether—but I can’t help but draw the line at His love for each of us being a palliative or encouraging conviction.
For something to offer encouragement or alleviation from wretchedness, one has to believe that that thing promises real respite from the things that make one wretched. But we know that whether God loves us or not, we are stuck until we die in a world which promises a near-constant barrage of insults, failures, grievances, tragedies, disappointments, iniquities, deaths, humiliations, resentments, sorrows, loss, and wretchedness. We cannot point to anyone whom, perhaps, God loved more and thus made to suffer less, nor anyone whom God definitely loved less and so who conversely suffered more. No, God loves us all equally, and yet suffering is doled out at best, randomly; at worst, with the totality of a carpet bombing. Knowing that God’s love has no effect on the events, good and bad, that befall us in our lives, and that neither does it gravitate in greater quantity to those who work harder to be worthy of it (i.e. those who make a more concerted effort not to be assholes), how can the knowledge that He loves each of us provide real solace?
Reduced to bluntness, my point is, “God loves me. …And?”
God loves me and he loved Genghis Khan, and Ann Frank and Stalin, and the Grand Inquisitor and Dostoevsky and the slaughtered babies and their mothers and Milosevic and my dead father. This may be true, and I believe it is true. But how on earth can I glean comfort from it?