Note: Originally written several years ago.
My mom looks for Reasons the way some people look for spare change on the ground. She always has an eye out for them, an ear cocked to hear the faintest whisper of a consequence or a lesson. Most were simple illustrations of basic character: an irritating person was placed in my life to teach me patience; a flat tire the day after a stingy financial decision was a reminder to be more generous; an unexpected piece of good news was an example of God’s consistent goodness. Some links were easy to see and understand. Others were not.
I grew up listening to these narratives, and the concept of Reasons has left a permanent impression on my thinking. I suppose it is the way in which everyone learns to make sense of an otherwise haphazard world, how we maintain the hope to cope through difficult situations. But as I grew older, reason began to challenge the Reasons.
It started with the big questions. Were people really poor because they were lazy? Was HIV really God’s punishment to homosexuals? Was evolution really at odds with Christianity? And of course, the biggest of them all: is there a Reason for suffering?
For nearly each of these questions, I found the answer to be, “Perhaps, perhaps not.” We would go through endless cycles of arguments, some of which were very heated during which bitter words were exchanged. Sometimes I held on to prove a point, but I often found myself fighting out of sheer stubbornness and pride. I was challenging the Reasons because I began to doubt that there were any.
Madness and chaos. That was what disease seemed to me, the struggle between life and death in the hospital wards. Kind and generous patients suffered from horrific fates while those who were malingering and malicious fed off of the system’s generosity without punishment. The hospital was a new and disorienting place in which the old rules, the old Reasons no longer seemed to apply. Who lived and who died was less a function of morality as it was of biological processes, state variables, and an element of luck. In a world where so much was at stake, only the new reasons, the Evidence of hard data and tight correlations mattered. Even basic assumptions about standards of care were challenged and occasionally overthrown by the latest and greatest studies, and many reasonable, long-standing associations between health and disease disintegrated under closer scrutiny.
My own shift in perspective was subtle at first, and I wasn’t able to articulate my discomfort with it until one of my friends began using “evidence based arguments” for everything. He would launch into a political discussion with others and pepper them with the question, “Where’s your reference? Show me the study.” It was an irritating thing for him to do in the context of otherwise casual conversation, but the inflammatory nature came from the realization that most of what we say on a daily basis is complete bullshit. We speculate and make conclusions based on very little evidence because that is how we must deal with the complexities of daily life, but if we truly realized how uneducated and sporadic those decisions were, we would lose the confidence to make it from one moment to the next.
Something in me hardened. My faith in God, the Ultimate Reason, which had once been so strong began to settle for lesser things. God may count the hairs on your head, but I can tell you now that it will be exactly zero once your chemotherapy is started. You can pray for a miracle, but if we don’t amputate that leg tomorrow you might lose your life. Praying is good, but praying 20 hours outside in the snow is not; please restart your bipolar medications or we won’t let you out of here.
And so prayer, something I once loved to do, became more an act of desperation and a superstition than one of faith. I didn’t know what to pray for, mainly because I was tired of being disappointed. I began knocking on wood and crossing my fingers because they seemed to be just as effective: barely, if at all. I was tired of bullshitting and really just wanted to admit: I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.
Finally, at the end of a long year, this illness knocked me out long enough to mull it over in my mind. True to form, my mother insisted that there was a Reason behind my lung collapse; the timing, the method, the stresses I was going through were all too coincidental to be due to anything else. And we talked, perhaps for the first time, about what it meant to use reasons and to look for Reasons. It reminded me of the Tower of Siloam:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” — Luke 13
Whenever I talk at length about the nature of suffering, I mention an example a mentor once used. Suffering is just the push that tips a cup over; it has no bearing on what comes out. This is what I have come to believe about suffering, illness, death, and all Events with consequences for which we seek a Reason: they reveal what is inside me, deep down inside that refuses to come out otherwise. I may have no control over my environment or the insanity of this small earth we inhabit, but there is always something in me that I can ask to have transformed:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. — Romans 12
Perhaps, in this way, I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.