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Over a lifetime, I’ve met lots of people who wonder why G-d “lets us suffer.” Or why G-d lets perfectly innocent people, especially children, die from catastrophic illnesses. Or why G-d lets bad things happen to good people.
I think these people are asking the wrong questions, and they are looking for help to come from the wrong source. I’ve also heard the comment that G-d doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I think this belief doesn’t frame people’s struggles in a way that helps and empowers them, or strengthens their relationship with G-d.
I was inspired to think over these kinds of issues in reading a piece this weekend written by the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, where he discusses how Joseph was able to reconcile with his brothers, where instead he could have felt bitter and rejected by how they had treated him. Rabbi Sacks suggests that a factor for Joseph might have been his reframing his situation, realizing that G-d had a role that He wanted Joseph to play. I would also add from my own perspective that although many things happened to Joseph that he couldn’t control, he also had free will to make many constructive choices, which is the very special gift that we are all blessed with.
He also wrote about Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy. Frankl survived the concentration camps, and probably saved many lives through his own philosophy:
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.*
The problem for many of us is that G-d wants us to know that we have free will, but we don’t pay attention to his message. Instead, when our lives are difficult, we prefer to blame someone or something for our circumstances. We find ourselves complaining, claiming victimhood, and we choose to be miserable instead of embracing our lives, just as they are. I certainly have found myself taking the “blame course.” I thought of some examples of victimhood in the last few days, and I want to share them with you.
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For some reason, I was reminded of two people with whom I was not well-acquainted, but who participated in two different Zen Centers where I was a member. One of them was suffering from a debilitating condition that caused her constant pain. The other person was devastated when he realized that the woman he loved didn’t return his love. Both of these people committed suicide. Now I realize that choosing to take one’s own life is a complicated decision. But in these circumstances, the people who committed suicide must have felt that they had no other option. They were overwhelmed by their situations and didn’t realize that they had other choices. And in their decisions, of course, they likely traumatized others. Also, Zen Buddhism has many positive beliefs, but a connection with G-d is not one of them. I suspect that the very thought of being empowered by free will as a gift from G-d didn’t enter their picture.
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The reason I am perplexed by the statement, “G-d doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” is that I am skeptical about whether some of our suffering and burdens are “given by G-d,” and that He decides just how much adversity we can handle. Life provides many challenges that I believe are part of being alive, and I think G-d can offer us consolation, strength, even encouragement to deal with our struggles, but ultimately, He counts on us to take care of our burdens as best we can. Part of our decisions have to do with how we frame our struggles, how we choose to understand them in our lives, and how we decide to act.
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Recently I came to realize that as a hospice volunteer who contacts people who are suffering from the loss of a loved one, my phone calls have taken on a whole new meaning. First, I don’t just call these folks; more and more I am connecting with them. They are confiding in me more often. They are sharing stories. We even laugh together (always initiated by them). And I realized that I am experiencing my time with them in a way that is new, intimate, and vibrant. Besides my own maturing, what has changed?
I think that the barrier I was erecting to protect my own psyche is slowly diminishing. Also, I’ve had a number of health challenges, and although my suffering is tiny compared to theirs, it has nurtured my ability to empathize with them.
So I have grown past the point of just making sure I say the right things, although I try to be fully present to each call and the words I choose. But I am less self-conscious. And as we talk, my gratitude for them in helping me through my own challenges only deepens the time we have together. Strangely enough, I am also learning more about dealing with my own struggles.
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So, when G-d is trying to remind me that I am empowered to look at my situations with fresh eyes, I try to pay close attention. I try not to interrupt his message to me. And I will continue to do my best to reframe my challenges as moments when I can learn and grow. My hope is that not only will my own life be more satisfying and peaceful, but I will continue to have peace and empathy to offer those around me.
If your views on these topics differ from mine, I hope you will share them. I’m still learning!
*from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for MeaningPublished in