Wisdom and joy can emerge from tragedy

This appeared in the religion section of the Ventura County Star, May 25, 2013. I write a column twice a year as a member of the Conejo Valley Interfaith Association.

I went to a movie Monday afternoon and stepped off the world for two hours, taken away by the magic-making of the art of filmmaking. Back inside my car I turned on the radio and was immediately pulled back into the world by the news of the day. There had been a devastating tornado in Oklahoma and my thoughts turned to those I know who live there and serve churches there. This is how we live now – we are immediately connected to the latest tragedy. It can be an overwhelming way to live.

It can be overwhelming to be pulled into other people’s lives in a shared intimacy provided by instant information spinning towards us in a hyper-connected world. I watched online as an older woman stood before the rubble that was once her house. The interviewer asked her if she could yet comprehend what had happened. “Oh I know exactly what happened to me,” the woman feistily answered. Pressing on, wanting something further from the woman, the reporter kept asking her what she thought of the disaster. “That’s life in the big city,” the woman finally said. Maybe a cliché is all any of us have in the face of such inexplicable sorrow, but I imagine this cliché carries the wisdom of the ages. It is a wisdom that will be shared by thousands of viewers who will watch this video over and over again on devices that keep us connected to each other, reminding us we are not alone.

“How do we make sense of this?” the reporter wanted to know. “Why does suffering happen?” we all want to know. How can an all-powerful, supposedly loving God, allow suffering? Allow evil? “That’s life in the big city,” the wise woman counsels. Sometimes suffering just comes out of the whirlwind. It is part of the nature of things. The story of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures teaches us this.

Job’s friends try to convince him he must have done something wrong, some unknown sin has caused his suffering. In the end Job is forced to reject the shallow theology of his friends when he comes face to face with a God who speaks out of the whirlwind. Job is shaken from his simplistic understanding of the sort of puppet-master God who directs each and every human action. Job wakes up. He is transformed. “That’s life in the big city,” he might say. 

My faith teaches that when suffering comes out of the whirlwind, it matters how we respond. My faith calls me to pray with my feet, to first cry out in anguish with those who are hurting, and then to take action. And, in our constantly connected world, we can take action immediately. We can text cash donations to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank. Survivors of the disaster can post photos of found items to a Facebook group helping identify lost possessions that were thrown a great distance by the storm. This is how we live now – we are immediately connected by the latest tragedy. It could be an overwhelming way to live, if we let it be overwhelming.

The video of the woman standing in front of what was once her house has been seen by thousands more in the time it has taken me to write this reflection. You are nodding your head because you have seen it. You have seen how the video ends. You have watched as the woman’s small dog climbs out from underneath the rubble. This is how we live now, connected and connecting, receiving wisdom from an ordinary woman who knows that sometimes suffering just comes to us, and joy comes too.

About Lora Brandis

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, on-call hospital chaplain and INELDA trained death doula. I am also nana/nanny to twins Rose and James - best job I've ever had.
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