Seeking the answers

  • April 25, 2013

Only those who have run marathons fully understand the event’s power to shred body, soul and psyche. Runners of half-marathons don’t half understand that power because the full 42.1 kilometres does not split arithmetically in two. It is commonly said the marathon truly begins at 30 kilometres.

Yet even people lacking direct personal experience of the marathon’s bone- and mind-grinding demands reacted viscerally to the unique, grotesque cowardice of the recent terror bombings in Boston. There was something about the victims chosen for the attack that revolted and outraged us.

We were, of course, horrified by the casualties. But there was more to it. The same week, after all, an industrial explosion in Texas killed many more. An earthquake in China killed many thousands.

Nor could it have been just because the assault took place in broad daylight in a major city on a festive day. As a letter writer to the Globe and Mail said, if those conditions explained our collective reaction we would not casually shrug off similar daily bombings in the cities of the Middle East.

No. What compounded the anguish in Boston was the monumental injustice of targeting people who have, for good ends, stripped themselves to their most vulnerable core at the very finish of a physically, psychologically and even spiritually exhausting test. The reality that many of the most grievously injured, and all of the dead, were spectators exacerbated that injustice with the message that none can count on being spared.

The keening question that followed — how could this have happened? — echoed Job’s eternal question at the heart of all religious faith: “For God’s sake, God, what do You want?”

In an essay for the June-July issue of Convivium, Diane Weber Bederman reminds us that the heart of this question is the unbearable ambiguity of the answer Job receives.

“After almost 40 chapters dealing with suffering, we are left with a feeling of anxiety because we have not been given a definitive answer about suffering and evil, and living with ambiguity can be unbearable,” Bederman writes in meditating on the Book of Job. “So we search for absolute answers to assuage the unbearableness.”

The micro-attention span of contemporary life, she cautions, makes us highly susceptible to being convinced that assuaging such “unbearableness” is best done by declaring it a dead matter. Jargonists call this “closure.”

The word makes Bederman bristle.

“Promoting the concept of closure is facile, disingenuous and mean-spirited,” she says. “It is my experience that seeking closure is an exercise in futility. We are not obligated to accept a tragedy. Rather, to survive we must come to terms with it by accepting and embracing the person we become because of the tragedy.”

If there is the knowing confidence of the Jewish mother in her words, it comes honestly. Bederman is a Jewish mother. And grandmother. She is a multi-faith chaplain who has suffered the debilitation of mental illness, including near-suicidal depression. Out of all that, the person she has embraced and become is a woman who is now flourishing as a prodigious and deeply talented writer. She does not pretend to have the answers to the Book of Job’s heartfelt question. But she has a pen that provides eloquent commentary on the ambiguity of God’s answer.

Only those who have completed a marathon can know the particular joy that comes at the moment when the shredded body, soul and psyche take the very last step of 42.1 kilometres and touch that magic point called the finish line. Only they can know the marathon’s specific power for transforming the ambiguity of “how will I finish?” to the certainty of “I am there.”

But that is equally true in all human struggle and suffering. In the bright, momentary space at the conclusion of struggle and suffering we know not only that we finished but, more importantly, that we endured.

Or as Bederman puts it beautifully, and as the events at Boston testify: Free will not only allows us to choose life, it demands it of us: “Today, I call heaven and Earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.”

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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