This world is pretty messed up, isn’t it? Corrupt governments. Warzones around the world. Murder, rape and even genocide fill the nightly news. That doesn’t even cover natural disasters like floods, fires and hurricanes. Yep, the world is a pretty messed up place.
Of course, it is also a very beautiful place. People get married every day. Children play in the park. The sun shines, rain nourishes the earth and trees are filled with delightful fruit for our enjoyment. Yeah, the world is a pretty great place. And it is messed up.
As with several of my recent blog posts this one has also been inspired by my wife’s recent brush with death and her subsequent recovery and rehabilitation. In this article I want to consider how our perspective on pain and suffering influences the conclusions we draw from it. Having your heart stop without any warning, having your chest pounded on for roughly an hour in an attempt to restart it, having shocks of electricity forced across your torso several times, being medically paralyzed and sedated as your body temperature is forcibly lowered several degrees Celsius and then having to recover from all the above constitutes, in my humble opinion, a reasonable dose of suffering.
When considering the prevalence of suffering in the world many people wonder where God fits into all of that. It seems to me that is a perfectly legitimate question. Indeed I wonder, sometimes, why so many Christians seem to have a theology of “God wants me to be happy all the time” when the Bible is replete with examples of people suffering specifically as a result of their willingness to obey God. Does God tend to bless those who trust in him? Absolutely, but that is far from the whole story. Sometimes he puts his loved ones in harm’s way for very specific reasons; either personal growth through trial or for the betterment of somebody else. Suffering is unquestionably a facet of the reality we find ourselves in and we ought to take it seriously.
But not too seriously. Suffering should be treated with a seriousness that is proportional to its place in the world. We should not try to sweep it under the rug, nor should we try to stick it behind a magnifying glass and blow it out of proportion. Indeed, while some Christians may downplay the reality of suffering our world I dare say there are others who see nothing but horror and tragedy everywhere they look. The earth, we are told, is blood-soaked; a melodramatic representation of reality if there ever was one.
This tendency to misrepresent the scale of suffering was made all the more apparent to me as I watched my wife emerge from her medically induced “coma” (I’m not a medical person; that may not be the technically accurate word) and start to re-engage the world. As a result of her cardiac arrest she suffered some minor neurological damage and, in all likelihood, some parts of her brain were still experiencing some excess pressure which distorted her innate perspective on life. When she awoke from her coma there was an undeniably negative tone in her response to the situation she found herself in. Was such negativity understandable? Yes, but it was still out of character for her.
Let me give an example. Several days after she came to, she started walking. At one point the physiotherapists were doing various tests on the state of her recovery. They had her walk to the window in her room, look out, and tell them what she saw. I’ll give you a sneak peek. From that particular window the edge of the hospital property was almost a stone’s throw away. There was some kind of mechanical building slightly to the right side and another hospital tower a little further to the right. In the center and to the other side the terrain opened up to a wide valley that had been carved by the river that flows through our city. Trees covered the earth as far as we could see. In the distance the other side of the valley rose, but not so high as to block the Rocky Mountains that capped the horizon. It was a sunny day, but with a few clouds; the kind of day that beckoned one outdoors for some walking and biking.
What did she see? “Hospital stuff,” she said, with a slightly disgruntled tone.
Seriously? You’ve got the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, trees blanketing the landscape, the Rocky Mountains framing this entire picture and all you can see is the hospital stuff in the foreground and to the side? This is an example of what we might call “selection bias.” When a person is expecting to see something they tend to find it wherever they look. While Denise’s brain was recovering it went through a stage where she was unnaturally pessimistic and frustrated with everything. In that state even the most glamorous piece of heavenly artwork, that we call our beautiful city and the surrounding countryside, is drowned by the horror and ugliness of a little bit of hospital architecture in the foreground.
There is another aspect of this whole situation that led to Denise’s negative perspective. When she collapsed from her cardiac arrest she was clinically dead. That is a terrifying thought when you let it sink in. Many factors weighed against her recovery – the odds were not in her favour – but she unexpectedly pulled through and appears to be on the road to more or less a full neurological recovery. Whether that is a miracle or not in the technical sense of the word is a topic for a future post, but suffice it to say that all of us – family, therapists, nurses and doctors – are stunned with not only the fact of her virtually perfect recovery, but the speed at which she is racing toward it.
But not her. When she first woke up she had short-term memory issues. Sometimes I would have to tell her several times a day that she had a cardiac arrest, I would have to remind her about the CPR, the ambulance ride, ER and so forth. She will never remember the actual events, of course, but she was having difficulty remembering that I had described the events to her. She kept forgetting why she was in the hospital in the first place.
When she looked at her situation – she cannot walk, she cannot feed herself, she cannot write coherent English – she did not see that through the lens of “I was technically dead just last week.” She would see it through the lens of “I never used to have any of these problems.” Her memory did not include the valley she had just passed through, because of her short-term memory problems she could only remember where she used to be before all of this happened. Her mind was constantly hitting “reset” so she kept comparing her immediate state to her normal state without taking into consideration what she just went through. From that perspective she was experiencing a constant deficit of sorts, and that’s all she would see at first. The rest of us constantly compared her current progress to the state when she was in when she arrived in the ER. When seen through that lens we were in a constant state of joy and excitement at her progress. Bewildered at our enthusiasm, she only saw through her lens and lived in a virtually constant state of frustration and pessimism because of everything she could not do.
For two reasons – neurological damage to the brain interrupting her normal personality, and short-term memory issues giving her a unique frame of reference – she tended to see her situation in a far more negative light than any of us around her. We were delighted, she was aggravated. She was experiencing selection bias with respect to her circumstances; she was unable to see the whole picture.
All too often those who shake their fists at God because of all the suffering in the world are exhibiting symptoms of selection bias similar to what Denise went through. I am well aware that some people have had a really rough go at life – they have suffered far more than the rest of us could possibly imagine – but even in those situations it is not necessary that one must see the world through the eyes of pessimism and frustration. For the most part we choose our lens unless, like Denise, we are dealing with neurological issues. Of course there are certainly some forms of suffering so extensive and so severe that it is virtually impossible for any person to maintain a positive disposition. But how many of us are in that boat?
What I have found interesting over the years of observing people is the inconsistency of responses that people have to their own suffering. There are those who develop a negative outlook on life as a result of their suffering, and this would seem to be the most understandable response. But there are so many exceptions. Others who suffer do not exhibit that tendency at all. Some swing in the opposite direction as they begin to marvel at the wonder of life from fresh eyes. At the very end of the book “The problem of pain” by C.S. Lewis there is an appendix by a medical doctor based on his observations of those who have endured various forms of pain. He ends his insightful little commentary with the note, “Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.” Some who suffer interpret their suffering through the lens of negativity, but others who suffer rise to the occasion and set an example for the rest of us.
While I find the responses of those who suffer fascinating, what I find even more amazing is how many people get so remarkably hung up on the suffering in the world while they live in relative comfort. They have their health. They have their sanity. They have the financial means to meet their needs and many of their desires as well. They live in middle- to upper-class houses. They are nowhere close to a warzone and there is no volcano or hurricane zone within a day’s drive of where they live. They get to choose their government and will not be sent to jail without due process. They are free to express themselves without fear of police intervention.
Yet they see the world through the lens of negativity. They see the suffering of others and it becomes their frame of reference for all of life. Because other people suffer they shake their fists at God. Where is he? Why does he not fix the world? Why do so many bad things happen? All fair questions, absolutely, but the persistence with which they ask their questions often reveals more about the questioner than it does about God, the only one qualified to answer them. Like my wife who gazed upon a serene image of natural beauty in the distance but could only see the hospital property at the end of her nose, many people choose the lens of negativity as their frame of reference for the world around them and refuse to see all the splendour and majesty that engulfs us daily.
If we have grounds to shake our fist at God because of what is wrong with the world, should we not (to be consistent) embrace him when we stumble upon all that is right with the world? If we have good reason to conclude God does not exist because there is pain, do we not have equally good reason to conclude that God does exist because there is pleasure? We are moved to tears and anguish when we hear about injustice and heartache but are we equally moved to tears of joy and delight when the beauty of the world and the love of humanity overwhelms us? Or, for some people, do they even allow the beauty of the world to touch them in any meaningful way? Perhaps the only emotions they experience are emotions of horror and anger. More selection bias.
To properly tackle the problem of pain and all of its philosophical implications, it seems to me, one must be prepared to dedicate equal time and attention to the problem of pleasure and follow that evidence where it leads. One must consider the whole picture, not just those parts of the picture that we see because of the lens we have chosen to look through. The world is broken – absolutely and unequivocally broken – but it is also very beautiful.