The Way We Reach

22 Mar

On Saturday, I said I would first write to you about what it’s like to be a military wife because my husband is supposed to be leaving soon for a long, humanitarian-type mission. He may or may not miss my birthday tomorrow and we probably won’t know for sure until a few hours before he has to go. Truthfully, though, in the face of all that’s going on in the world with the crisis in Japan and Libya and elsewhere, it’s not such a bittersweet thing as I thought it would be for me. I’m hugely relieved that the military has chosen to use my husband to do some good this time and if this is the way that I can give to people half a world away who are suffering, Hubs can miss my birthday all they want.

It’s true that I pout a lot because of his occupation. In fact, before I met him, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t marry (and therefore wouldn’t date) a military man. I knew exactly what that was about because of my dad’s involvement in the Air Force and had long decided that I was not the type of woman who waited around for a man to come back from one thing or another, crying periodically and making care packages all the time. (I’m still not very good at being that sentimental.) Still, I fell in love with Hubs and no matter how much I hated his day job, I knew he was the only person in my life who would go the distance with me. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s that I’m blessed with the ability to be certain of a good thing and to stand by it absolutely. And you know what? I don’t like what it does to us sometimes, but I’m grateful for my husband’s service and what he does for our country because every now and then, he does get to help people.

And now I’m going to step away from the discussion of our relationship because there is something bigger to address. In light of the work Hubs is about to do, I want to talk about why I think people suffer.

I’m not a person who thinks that there is a black and white reason for every little thing that happens, and I find it especially hard to say that to a person who is suffering. “God has a plan,” is a tough thing to handle when that plan apparently involves so much loss. Even Darwin couldn’t fully embrace religion because of how much needless pain and death there was in the world. He devoted much of his studies to finding reasons for all the devastating parasites and deaths of infant animals because in spite of his scientific reasoning, he just couldn’t work out why his oldest daughter had to die. No one, no matter how intelligent or clever or wise, can tell you why things happen the way that they do but the last thing that this girl ever says is that God meant it that way. I’m sure that he does work all things for our good…at some point…but I don’t think that’s a very comforting thought when you’re hurting.

Some people say we are hurt so we can grow stronger which is probably a little true in a round-about way. Being hurt makes us vulnerable. It strips us of things we’ve built to protect ourselves and to hide ourselves. It makes us face the things we don’t like and forces bravery and perseverance in a way that could be said to make us stronger. In truth, I think it  just makes us more in tune with who we really are–weaker or stronger is a bit subjective. In some cases, though, hurt makes people fill up with things instead of being deconstructed. Sometimes they are covered with fear and anger and that grief can take them away from themselves for a very long time. People can build impenetrable walls around themselves.

For me, there’s one story in scripture that I think explains a large part of why people experience suffering and it’s probably not the one you think. Everyone assumes the story of Original Sin is the end-all-be-all explanation of the human condition but if that were true, the answer to our problems would be to develop severe trust issues in our relationships, right? “Where’d you get that apple? Take a bite? Why? What’d you do to it? Did you buy it with the credit card? I thought we agreed not to use that anymore.” Although a pretty bit of poetry, it’s not as helpful as people make it out to be.

There’s another Genesis story that gets attention for all the wrong reasons, in my opinion. It’s the Tower of Babel in chapter eleven.

In this story, all the humans on earth are traveling and living together (because this story comes shortly after the Noah tale, this version of history has very few surviving cultures), speaking the same language and generally getting along. Then one day they decide it’s time to build a lasting home and they start constructing a city. After the city is done, they get really bored and start building an enormous tower that touches the sky. I don’t know if this is exaggeration but if it’s not, the first skyscraper is somewhere in Mesopotamia, probably Iraq if you want to get specific.They specifically say that they want to build this civilization so that they don’t have to be separated and can live together in harmony.

Anyway, then God comes around one day and sees the tower and says to his imaginary friends (Christians would say he’s speaking to the other members of the Trinity but this is essentially a Jewish story and they would probably say he was speaking to the Sons of God who are angel-type figures) “6. Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing will be withheld from them. 7. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So he does and as the story goes, this is why one culture doesn’t understand every other and why we no longer live together as one nation. Now, the story is often explained away as an example of human pride and God’s judgment. However, though there’s a tiny sliver of evidence to support this (when people begin building the tower they say, “let us make a name for ourselves”), I think it robs the story of greater significance and also makes God look a little petty. “Oh, yeah? You want to build a tower and act all high and mighty? I’ve got something for you. See if you can get any work done now.”It doesn’t line up.

I had to pray a long time over this bit of scripture because it really is easy to make bad assumptions of God’s character from this story. One day, for no real reason, I started to imagine all the suffering that this separation has stirred into being. I imagined all the wars that have begun because one culture couldn’t get along with another and how much could be accomplished if we just understood each other again and began to build something together–a city where we all could live. Then I thought about this passage and tried to work out why God would do this, if not retribution for our pride. What were we to learn from this?

When I look at the scripture, I see God’s action as issuing a challenge. He says, “Okay, you’re all getting along when you understand each other and it’s easy enough now to act like you don’t need me, but now I’m not going to hold back. I will scatter and confuse you and then we’ll see if you can still build things together.”  And their answer was, “they ceased building the city.” Now, even this looks a little petty on God’s part but if you’re willing, you can a faithful step further and think there must be some good in this.

My answer is this: People have to search for each other now. We have to put time and effort into understanding each other and we have to reach across boundaries and make compromises to live in peace. It doesn’t sound altogether better than having that relationship by default but in a way, I think we are rewarded with appreciation for the things we have in common now that we are so different. If God really meant to punish humanity’s pride, this would be the perfect way to humble us not only to him but to each other.

But how does this apply to suffering? I want you imagine that this story is a metaphor. I want you to see yourself as your own nation, with your own language and your own barriers that need crossing. Now I want you to imagine that you are hurting–someone you love has been taken away and you’re desperately trying to tell someone that you need them but you’re stuck in the ruins of a city that no one is building anymore. One day, someone comes along as his own nation with his own language and sees you there, hurting and alone. He tries to speak to you and you don’t understand each other but you know he’s trying to comfort you and little bits of your barrier and the ruins around you start to fall away. Then another person joins him and the three of you are confused together but you know they’re both trying to comfort you and in doing so, they’re comforting each other too. Then one day, you start to learn each other’s words and they get a message through, “we love you.” And all your barriers are destroyed. You’ve got bricks on the ground all around the three of you and you all decide that you should make something new together to mark the occasion and to help you remember each other’s words. So you start a new city because you have something in common–you found out that you all hurt together and that was the one thing everyone could understand. You reached for each other and you worked until you accomplished something together.

Everyone has barriers and towers that need to come down. Everyone needs to escape from the ruins in their life. Pain is the most visible signal flare because everyone recognizes it and everyone knows how much it sucks. No one, even your worst enemy from high school (well, maybe), wants to see you hurt and if you can let someone in, or if you can be the person who reaches across the boundary, you can have a breakthrough. You can see walls come down and you can simultaneously help build the city where we all live together.

This, I think, is ultimately the legacy of the Tower of Babel story. We were meant to learn how to need each other and in so doing, find that we need a God who holds us together–who sees our pain and made others who know what it feels like, who sends those people (or tries to, because I don’t think everyone listens) to be vulnerable right alongside of us, who teaches us to truly love each other more than ourselves.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of the good that can come from suffering and I can’t think of any metaphor more appropriate for the work my husband is about to do–going to a different country to help them in their time of need. Good luck, sweetums. And good luck to all you other ambassadors of healing, even if you’re helping right where you work or live or go to school. I hope we’re all trying to build a city.

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One Response to “The Way We Reach”

  1. Traycee Williams March 30, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Beautifully said.

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