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?
God’s love doesn’t so much serve to saves us from suffering, but to enables us to bear it and to grow from it. In that way, how and when blows are dealt isn’t random but actually specific and deliberate—perhaps. This sounds cruel but I have no problem thinking of God as both merciful and cruel. And in this way, maybe it is less of a sin to be wretched and more of a sin to live in it and never grow—to refuse the opportunities presented to us by suffering. There is comfort in knowing God loves us and makes us to suffer because in that way we get to (grow, live, breath, love, suffer, sin, dance, laugh, cry, blog).
Gee Larissa,What would Mom say?I think the Bronx are having a strange and rather alarming effect on you….Are we all so stupid that the only way we can learn is by suffering? Isn’t it a wise man who learns from a fool’s mistakes? It may be true that we only learn from suffering but isn’t that a design flaw that we can lay at the feet of “our” God? Do we really want to believe in a God that would create us in such a way that mistakes and suffering are the only guarantee of us learning anything? I’ll have to think about this some more….
but Elle Jay, if God’s love enables us to bear suffering and grow from it, that’s fine for us who can learn from it, but much suffering just ends in death. and learning from suffering only seems like a plus if your learning eventually helps you achieve happiness–what good is learning from suffering if you’re in for a full lifetime of suffering–you learn to….what? cope with the suffering. where’s the solace in that? and when babies suffer and die, they don’t learn from it. again, this doesn’t jeopardize my belief in a God, or even a just god, but only in my belief that I’m supposed to find comfort in the idea that I am loved by this God.
Much suffering ends in death. True. But what if death doesn’t really exist? Yes, our bodies die, then what? What if our death and suffering enables growth for someone else, or for the whole universe. Learning to cope. Yes, I’d say that is the primary life-lesson for many people. (Much like college taught me mostly how to get through red tape and administrative hoo-ha). And as for babies and other small creatures and helpless, unlearn-able things—who is to say how their suffering impacts the universe or those touched by their stories. It’s just too hard to see at the granular level, but I find solace in the idea that there must be some good that comes out of everything bad. It’s not fair, but I don’t think it is supposed to be.
But MAD, nobody said we can ONLY learn from suffering, only that it is possible and good to learn from it. I don’t think there’s any good in dismissing it as a design flaw; as I can’t see what the point would be of creating a perfect human race, or of, like, holding a grudge against God for not having made us smarter: if there is a reason at all for us a) existing, b) suffering, c) needing to learn from suffering, I’m sure the reason is a good one. I’m only not sure that it is a comforting one
On that note…HAPPY FRIGGIN’ EASTER!!!!!!
This one helped me a good deal: The Problem of Pain, CS LewisAlso appreciated his take on the big picture, Mere Christianity.You might have read both Larissa, but if not, you might find some help there.Good luck and let me know if you figure it all out! :-)Best,Matt
“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.”Ok. Now you’re scaring me.You know where I turn for an intellectually-challenging-yet-appealing-and-ultimately-digestible Christian’s view (Mr. Lewis).But for the same message in more Earthly terms (though by no a means Godless perspective), I’ve got Wendell Berry. And WB might wonder, in your case, whether you’ve grown any good tomatoes lately? Hmmmm?How many people do you see daily that you love—-capital L?Do you cook your own meals and share them with your friends? Often enough?Are you pleased with your work? Does it do anyone any good? Will it leave the things and people you love something lasting when you’re gone?Reading these two guys serves (for me) as a constant reminder that all the “insults, failures, grievances, tragedies,” etc., of life are more than balanced by its many pleasures and virtues; that the world is still a GOOD PLACE. And more important (from our perspective): We still have a place in it.But you have to make that place. You do it through your work and through taking care of the people and things you love. You have to be productive on their behalf and on your own, and in concrete ways with tangible results. Giving to large-scale charities, worrying about the State of The World or The Environment, buying “green” products…none of these things has the immediate, personal effect necessary to make one’s life worth living.It’s got to be small scale, and I think that’s where people get lost. We’re trained to Think Big these days, to Think Globally. But we’re incapable of solving big problems; our bodies and brains are made to solve small ones. Berry’s point, variously made, is that satisfaction in life is a matter of scale. Matching the scale of your work and worries to the actual size of your life is critical. Otherwise we’re overwhelmed. And MY point (to this un-requested monologue) is that you seem to be a little bit overwhelmed at the moment. :-)Take cheer!matt
Cheers to Mr. Mullenix. If the theist must deal with the problem of pain, the agnostic must surely worry about the problem of pleasure.
Good point!But Odius: Isn’t the only real problem of pleasure, “Which pleasure first?”:-)
My own take on the matter:Contemplation/Philosophy < Schadenfreude < Visual Beauty < Opera < Food < Good Company < Being Outdoors < Alcohol < Sex < P.G. Wodehouse < All-Encompassing Sloth
haha! You’s funny!! I better read some P.G. Wodehouse!
Enh. Why bother when you can just lie there?
Boy. I had insomnia and was trying to remember the line from the Great Gatsby (“a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”), then I googled that phrase and got to your blog. Thank you thank you. I feel pretty wretched lately and so zoomed in on “On Wretchedness” and now I feel much much better. I have nothing to add to this topic, only my appreciation and gratitude. You’re all sweetiepies.