Not Making Sense



by John Tyler Connoley


February 9, 2005



Almost two months after the tsunami disasters in southern Asia, we've begun to let the stories sink in. Some people have moved on to other things -- the news media dropped the story weeks ago. Others are now beginning the process of making sense out of an occurrence that seems to make no sense. As usual, people have begun to theologize their experience of suffering.


A parishioner called our pastor recently and asked if the world is ending. With the news of the tsunami and the affect it had on the earth's axis, this person wanted to know if there was some prophecy being fulfilled in our time. I have another friend who's telling people (jokingly) that the tsunami marked the beginning of seven years of tribulation before Christ's return -- and the world will end in 2012 when the Mayan calendar runs out.


It's natural for we big-brained humans to try to find theological meaning in everything. Some people are saying God allowed the tsunami so we would come together as a planet in aiding the victims. From others, I've heard that God brought the tsunami as divine retribution for some communal sin. A common response in southern Asia is to blame the tsunami on karma, brought about by the bad actions in past lives of those who died. Seeing nothing else to pin meaning to, I have one friend who uses the tsunami disaster as proof of God's non-existence -- also a theological response.


In the face of a universe beyond our understanding and out of our control, we look for recognizable patterns on which to hook meanings. Complicated disasters like the tsunami or 9/11 become Rorschach tests in which we see what we want to see. However, in the end, all our proclamations and prognostications are tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


If, as I believe, God exists and is worthy of our awe, then God must necessarily be beyond our understanding, and we can't hope to know why God allowed (or perhaps caused) the tsunami which led to the disaster. If, as my friend believes, God does not exist and is not worth a second thought, then the web of cause-and-effect that resulted in so many dead and wounded is still beyond what we can understand or control. In either case, making sense of the disaster is useless.


It may seem strange, considering my adherence to the Christian faith and my seminary degree, but I don't find theology very useful when dealing with the tragedies of life. Instead, I look to philosophy for relief from suffering. In particular, I look to the philosophy of a man who lived 2,500 years ago.


Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, spent his entire adult life on the problem of suffering. He saw his life's purpose in relieving suffering, and he thought he could do this best through philosophy. He lived at a time when philosophers spent much of their time arguing theology, but he refused to involve himself in theological discussions. He recognized that theology offers little solace to the suffering. In fact, as the biblical book of Job demonstrates, theology often increases one's pain when the theologian says one deserves to suffer.


Instead of focusing on why things are, the Buddha taught his followers to see deeply what is. He asked his disciples to accept the transience of life, and not hold on too tightly. As I understand Buddhist philosophy, it's not the tragedies of life that bring the greatest suffering, but our human struggle to make meaning out of tragedies. If, instead of focusing on the fantasy of what could have been, we focus our energy on waking up to the reality around us, we find a deep sense of peace and calm -- we discover a compassion and dispassion that is otherworldly.


The nature of the world is that it's too complicated to understand completely. We'll never be able to recognize all the factors that went into making us who we are in the place we are. I can't hope to explain why my wonderful grandfather continues to live in loneliness, nine years after his wife of sixty-three years died. Neither can I understand why Saddam Hussein lives, while so many died under his regime.


In the face of such chaos and suffering, our best response is to give up the whys and wherefores, and simply live into what is. Many Buddhists do this through the practices of meditation and mindful living. Through these and other practices, such as prayer, people can achieve brief and sometimes sustained moments of profound acceptance, and train themselves to live this acceptance in daily life.


The goal is to achieve the same understanding that Job does at the end of his story. After ages of arguing, shouting, grumbling, and wrestling with the whys of suffering, Job finally stops. In a moment of understanding he says, "I cover my mouth." He has nothing to say to the whirlwind around him. Then, and only then, can he act in a way that brings about a better future.




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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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