Friday, September 23, 2011

Job and the Neutrality of Suffering

“'Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before
his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he
charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth.
Between morning and evening they are destroyed; they perish for ever
without any regarding it. …they die, and that without wisdom'” -- Job 4:17-21
On his birthday every year, Jonathan Swift used to read from Job 3, where Job curses the day of his birth. It's a long way to go for a joke, but it might not have been a joke in jest. John Gay's epitaph, “Life's a jest, and all things show it./ I thought so once, but now I know it,” is similarly mirthlessly funny. One of the reasons I like these writers so much is that they had been made unafraid, had been plunged into the miseries and truths we would like to avoid, and had gotten a humor that was neither gallows nor false out of it. Samuel Johnson wanted epitaphs to be dignified and to elevate the sentiments of the reader, and so he did not like Gay's, or Swift's, but Gay's, at least, was a last bit of conversation between the dead and the living.
I could expound on the ambiguous “now” of John Gay's grave marker, but there is no point. Instead, I have been thinking about Job. The book of Job is pretty ancient, and the textual folks think it may be the oldest part of the Bible. Those who notice that invariably go wrong by then doing source studies and looking at analogs. They have a project of reconstructing the True Meaning of “the adversary” as the composer of the book meant it and battling a received wisdom about the story. Those are interesting things, sure enough, but they're not really so revolutionary. After all, the text gives it to us. To me, though, stands out because of the story itself and what it tells us about humanity and divinity and the non-Western nature of morality, as opposed to ethics.

Clear your mind of the "God did it!" folderol. It isn't important, unless you entirely miss the  point of the book. Is a person good for having stuff? Is a person evil for lacking stuff? Is illness a sign of being bad? In other words, is Donald Trump a saint? Is a five year old with leukemia  an especially sinful child? If you answered "no," then saying that God's causing sores and losses is no indictment.  

We're accustomed to beginning from the premise that suffering is bad. In fact, in Plato's Republic, Socrates gets a group of rebarbative and wary customers to agree that the good is  that which decreases suffering, alleviates suffering, and avoids suffering. Upon that basis, they could reason forward to other propositions. We tend to agree with the dinner party on that head. However, Job seems to indicate that the good is not in relation to suffering, and that's what is so strange, so revolutionary, so perplexing. 
When we were little, we might have said "that which reduces broccoli and squash is the good." We might now laugh at that conclusion, but we shouldn't laugh too much. We would have been using our reason on our data. Our senses affirmed that the greatest bad was being chained to a dinner table with a horror-food before us. Socrates and company are merely doing the same. The reason Job doesn't is that he is asking for a different judgment. Our parents judgment, as the ones > looking over our heads, seeing beyond our senses and our present moment, might say that the vile squash is "good for you," and they would be right on the basis of perspective. Job differs from Western philosophy by beginning with the idea that there is a God who sees beyond all of our abilities in time and space and judgment.

Think about that human reaction to suffering. We tend to react to it based on deserving. The friend of Job's who I quote at the top is taking a position that today's Calvinists would embrace, and he grows angry when Job refuses to admit that he, as a sinner by nature, must confess sins by commission. Job's friends can make no sense of his sufferings without a more primitive belief than Eliphaz is willing to admit. Eliphaz might say, in effect, "Everyone is sinful and deserves a kick, so don't defend yourself," he seems to believe that not admitting some active sinfulness (not marching up to the altar rail to confess) is the reason that God is punishing Job. In other words, he thinks that all deserve punishment, and none get it. However, by refusing to say you deserve it in a specific way (by not committing sins willfully), you will be punished.
Job, of course, is in a position of being forsworn. If he confesses to sins against God that he has not committed, then that would be sin. Further, his faith is in the uprightness of duty, and doubting that justice would be doubting God.

Still, Job's friends are true friends. If we look at what they do, not how they do it, we can see something to learn. Each wants to help. First, they weep with him (more later). Then, they try to put his sufferings into reason. Then they want to fix the situation for him. Indeed, what makes them angry is not that he suffers, but that he won't take the fixes.

To me, they've always been a perfect illustration of our own responses to random suffering. We should do more sympathizing, but we spend most of our time, like them, trying to eliminate the problem by giving it an explanation. Like Voltaire's doctors, who "pour drugs of which (they) know little into a body of which (they) know less." If we can only put the think into a system, regardless of fundamental understanding, then it will have a place, and a place is a position in relation. What we cannot tolerate is that which eludes the "natural order," even if we have to place it into the "divine order." Death, of course, is, as Alexander Pope said in Essay on Man (ii 135-6), the "young disease, that must subdue at length,/ Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength." It is the natural order.

Similarly, though, it is in our native cast to avoid death, both in our thoughts and in its grisly effects. This means also the alleviation of suffering. The dark lords of our economies who suggest that we are happiest when standing on the smoking corpse of our neighbors or that we have no natural concern for another's welfare are wrong. Sociopaths and narcissists exist in unnatural profusion, the truth is that we hate hearing, seeing, or being near a suffering person.

Rich lawyers complain that it's "depressing" to see a homeless shelter across the street from their social club. Americans wince and give phenomenal amounts of money when they see starving children, homeless hurricane and earthquake victims, and meanwhile the masters of talking-about-politics swear that those same Americans would never agree to a fraction of that amount going to taxes. In fact, we do not want suffering to occur. We want to stop it. The worst thing is suffering we cannot affect.

Men may be worse than women in this, but we're all pretty lousy friends to the wounded. Job shows that we have learned to be bad friends. We want to repair the hurting. We want to say, "Here's what you do, Job." "If you introduce an austerity plan for your children and get your sanitation situation under control by reducing the number of dogs who lick your sores and going without food, we can lend you some money, and everything will be fine," we say.

Job denounces his friends as false counselors in the end because, in the end, they are not counselors, but accusers, and so are we.

When you see a person suffering and reach for the shelf of cures and fixes, what you're doing is complaining that the person has given you sympathy pain. You are saying, "You violate the order of how things should be, and so you must be sanded down or built up." The suffering person is in pain, certainly wants aid, and you are seeking to help, but when you or I cross from helping from love of the other and helping from disquiet, we have gone from friendship to overseer, from supporter to accuser, from beloved to judge.

"Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home -- Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. they met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."
Job 2:11-3, RSV

The man who shoos the beggar away shoos Christ from his heart, but the man or woman who insists on fixing the poor is certainly cold, as surely refusing the healing power of consolation. One of the bitter herbs of technology is that our sadness and suffering drive us ever onward toward medicine, psychology, appliances, and travel, and we get better and better at amelioration and alleviation. In the process, we lose dying, willfully forget that dead is a noun, but dying a verb of duration. We get so facile at fixes that the irreparable baffles us and then enrages us. The men and women who lived in an age of infant mortality earned their jokes with death, deserved their wide-angle view of joy and murk intermingled, understood that a man who wrote like an angel might suffer like a devil with an infected spine. We could do worse than read again, and this time with feeling.

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