I used to be so sure of myself. I used to think I knew quite a lot about a good many things. These days, I think more and more that I don’t know much at all about anything–most of the time, in fact. Yesterday we went to the funeral of our friend who was killed Tuesday, and seeing the stricken faces of the children who look so much like her was more than we could bear. I keep carrying this grief with me, knowing that they will never be the same again and will have to grow into a new “normal,” but will still feel numb for a year or more. And I know there is nothing I can do at all for them at the deepest level, because grief is like birth: you go through it alone. The good news, if there is any, is that many other people have been in circumstances and felt griefs just as harrowing. They have felt just as lonely.
The casket was opened at the end of the funeral service. I do not generally like the American way of burying people, where they make the body into a spectacle–a plastic, creepy looking thing that hardly resembles the living person at all. In the case of our friend, though, I was glad they opened the casket, even though she died in a car accident. I was glad because her children who are developmentally still in quite concrete stages of development could see and feel that their mother was dead. It’s final; they’ll know that they won’t see her alive again until heaven, if then.
As everyone tried to work out how such a tragic accident could happen to the people involved, judgments began to form. The conversations I was privy to were sowed with “should,” “ought,” and “wrong.” I have not been able to think or feel my way through this well, because on a deep level I believe the suffering is senseless. One labors over its senselessness like the tongue over a broken tooth. It’s jagged; it’s out of place; it’s worrisome. Even after it’s fixed and only the memory of the sharp edges linger, we can go back to it and touch it, remembering how uncertain the decay and sudden loss made us feel.
It’s the uncertainty of life, and how people seem to deal with it, that has my attention this week.
The fear uncertainty causes seems to make many of us rush to judgment, because judgment is certain, and when we are certain, we feel safe. There are no question marks in “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” We love to judge people up until the day we go to their funerals. On that day, we’re not as inclined to be judgmental. We’re kinder when we notice the tears streaming down the faces of those who are most bereaved. Otherwise, we go through life making judgments; we may build our blogs, our conversations, or even our livelihoods around judgments.
We would much rather judge one another than love one another. How unlike my heavenly Father I am when I give myself the right to judge you. Is there not only one lawgiver, and one judge? As Saint James wrote,
“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:11-17).
How unlike Him I am when I tell you how right my own belief is, and how sure I am about it, and how wrong yours is. How arrogant I am for forgetting that you and I “are just a vapor.” My life should be full of “if the Lord wills,” and not so much “we shall go.” I know two people who died in their 30s of aneurisms. Their spouses woke up and found them dead in the bed beside them. How sure can I be that I’ll survive this day? And if I’m not sure that I will, absolutely certain, shouldn’t I try to be sure about something in the moment I have right now? Shouldn’t I try to be sure that I’m filling this moment with my whole being, and with love? Or is my life so lacking in these qualities that I need to fill up the space with judgments?
I am not sure. I am not certain. I don’t know much about anything, any more. I used to argue with people who helped me to feel inferior and stupider by their certainty. But something changed in me over the past eight years of ongoing suffering of one kind or another, beginning with my daughter’s death; I don’t argue as much any more, or with as much certainty, although I’m still a passionate person. I don’t blame her death for my shift in thinking; I just point to it as a turning point in my life. Many other things also happened to change me, most of which I’ve never written about here: moving to our dream home, which brought us problems we never anticipated; having terrific financial and marital problems for year after grinding year; experiencing large changes to our family structure, and large losses of other kinds.
And then I spent the better part of a year reading deeply in Buddhism; that changed me. I learned that in Buddhism nothing is permanent, and was reminded that this is true in Christianity, too. But western Christians have made Christianity into a westernized mockery of what it once was; I didn’t know that, either. I was so arrogant about my faith in the past, and now I am mostly just grateful and overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed most of the time, whenever I turn my eyes toward the sacred. I find I have been too free with my judgments and my platitudes, and have been more than ready to offer simplistic, shallow explanations of why things happen as they do.
I don’t know why things happen as they do; I can’t possibly be sure about why. The fact is that I am rarely sure or certain of anything, and this is the most humbling and comforting place I can be for now, because it’s a place where mercy triumphs over judgment.