For a Reason?

For a Reason?

Know your audience.

I had a great blog ready to go for today, super-insightful.

Then I looked at the calendar: December 23rd.  Just another day for me, but for at least some of you, two days before Christmas – the most joyous day of your entire year.  The fantastic blog I had written about confronting the fear of death suddenly seemed tone-deaf.  It will just have to wait until next year (hooray for lunar calendars).

The other interesting thing in yesterday’s Torah portion was Joseph’s second attempt to reassure his brothers that God brought about all his suffering for a reason.

“Am I a substitute for God?” Joseph says.  “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.” 

My teacher, Rabbi Nosson Sacks, once likened this attitude to the difference between an expectant mother in labor whose view of the story ends in the middle of a contraction.  What was all that suffering for?  What purpose did it serve?  But allow the story to continue and the baby is born.  The exhausted mother gets a rush of joy – enhanced by a rush of oxytocin – and it all makes sense.

Joseph’s view of his enslavement and imprisonment is not unique.  For my Christian readership, the idea that one person’s suffering is needed for the good of many is the essence of your faith, the literal birth of which you will celebrate the day after tomorrow, and the motivation for much of the self-sacrifice and charity you will do in the world this week and every week.

But for every Joseph, for every Christ figure, for every phoenix rising from its own ashes, consumed so that it can be reborn, there is a counter-example.  Prometheus having his liver devoured and regrown every day.  Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down overnight.  Job receiving suffering in return for complete piety. 

In a few weeks, I’ll be welcoming my fourth group of students into a class called “Death and the Healthcare Professions,” taught through the departments of Religious Studies and History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh Honors College.  Twenty or so undergraduate students, most of them future healers, will join me in confronting the ultimate in inconvenient truths, so that we can all learn better how to listen – even when it hurts, even when we are frightened, even when there is nothing we can say to make it better (didn’t I say I was going to try to avoid this topic?  Oops).

This year’s class will be the first to include Kate Bowler’s fantastic work of theology, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.  Bowler plays Job to the Joseph of the American Christian Prosperity Gospel, where every tear, every pain, every ounce of suffering has an explanation, and praying hard enough can not only wipe those away, but replace them with wealth, health and happiness. 

No, there is no explanation, she insists, for why my budding career as a divinity professor whose first book was a history of the Prosperity Gospel has suddenly been interrupted by a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer while my non-smoking body is still in its mid-thirties.

More accurately, Kate Bowler reminds us that it’s all well and good for Joseph to tell his brothers that his suffering had a higher purpose.  It’s not okay for everyone and their mother to tell Kate Bowler that her suffering has a higher purpose.  Kate Bowler is a Mennonite from the frozen plains of Canada; suffering is a way of life for her.  She must work its meaning out for herself, if there is one for her to find.

Healing isn’t about telling someone why they are suffering, other than biologically.  Our explanatory models are our own; the meaning we find in illness needs to come from within, not be imposed from the outside.  Healing, whether you get paid to do it or you are showing up as a trusted friend in an hour of need, is about sharing the burden of the suffering so it is easier to bear.  Sometimes, Bowler reminds us, that means keeping your mouth shut and letting the sufferer speak, scream and spit fire.

Meaningful suffering can be tolerated, even welcome, but I can’t handle the point of view in any religion that says we should welcome all suffering and force meaning upon it.  The Talmudic healer Rabbi Yohanan appears in several stories where an ailing rabbi is asked if his suffering is welcome to him.  The recurring response is, “Neither the suffering nor its reward.”  Once that phrase is pronounced, the healer reaches out a hand and lifts the ailing person up – or comes down into the depths with them to cry together.

Whether this is a season of profound hope and joy for you or just the 15th of Tevet/16th of Rabi Al-Akhar, may you either be like Joseph find the meaning in your suffering, or may your suffering be lifted from you by a caring healer like Rabbi Yohanan.  Healers, may you emulate the words of Psalm 30: “You turned my eulogy into dancing; you undid my sackcloth and enrobed me in joy.”

I hope you’ll join me on the journey with my students; I’ll be sharing some of the insights from the class through this blog.  Please follow along!  Class begins January 8.

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle is an experienced primary care physician seeking to fix our broken healthcare system by returning the focus to the relationship between human beings. His new book, Healing People, Not Patients, gathers together ancient wisdom, medical science, and the experiences of one doctor to draw a portrait of a partnership—a medical covenant—not just between doctor and patient, but also including receptionist, nurse, transporter, and radiology technician.

Healers Who Listen would love to listen to what you have to say, too.

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