We interrupt this musical lovefest to bring you an important announcement: people get sick. And when they get sick, sometimes you want to bludgeon your head against the wall.
Four people I know and love have gotten sick within the past couple weeks. And they’re very sick. My friend Fred had a mental breakdown, and will be hospitalized for the foreseeable future. My cousin Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer. My niece Sheila was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
In theological terms, these events often precipitate a crisis of faith based on theodicy, or the problem of evil. Basically, the argument goes like this: if God is so good, then why does such horrid shit happen to people? It’s a fair question, and if you’ve never lain awake at 3:00 a.m. and asked it, you will. Just give it time, because time is the great leveler of the just and the unjust, the blithely optimistic and the cynically jaded. I used to ask the Big Theodicy Question a lot. I don’t do it as much anymore, partly because I’ve experienced the reality of the goodness of God many times, partly because I’m perhaps not quite as stuck on myself as I once was, and am content to leave some mysteries alone. But maybe it’s just the nature of time. Because when you live long enough you get plenty of practice at this sort of thing, and although it never gets any easier, it does get more familiar. You find yourself sniffing, “what, a mere four life-changing catastrophes at one time? Mere child’s play.” But then there’s that 3:00 a.m. sucker punch, when you find yourself wide awake and staring at the ceiling. The questioning seems less intense. The sadness doesn’t, though.
On Monday I visited Fred over my lunch break, then headed back to the “real” world of Network Infrastructure Architecture. Fred sees theological significance in numeric patterns right now. At 12:15 I was contemplating the nature of the Trinity with Fred (sparked by his observation that there were three of us sitting around in a waiting room, drinking three cups of water), doing my best not to break into tears. At 1:15 I was in the middle of a meeting where people were shouting at one another, on the verge of apoplectic seizures because the Interactive Voice Recognition application did not work!!!! Instead of picking up a telephone and calling an insurance agent, people can now use the Internet and stare intently at an insurance company website and say “I want to talk to an agent,” and an agent will call them back. But it wasn’t working!!!! And people were ready to have coronaries over it.
I wanted to shout back, but I had nothing I wanted to add about Interactive Voice Recognition. I wanted to scream, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you have a clue about what is important and what is not important?” I didn’t. I bit my tongue, and did my very best Technical Writer Engaged with the Technical Proceedings impression, acting for all the world like I would toss and turn at night, deeply concerned because the poor, perplexed customer couldn’t talk to his computer monitor. But that’s not what I tossed and turned over later that night. I tossed and turned over Fred, and Pam, and Sheila, and my dad.
We are so fragile, terminal cases one and all, and the fucking Interactive Voice Recognition application isn’t the only thing that’s broken. Our bodies and our minds are broken. The whole world is broken. There’s nothing new or insightful there. This is an old, old story, dating back to a garden and a serpent, but it’s played out in countless variations every day, all over the planet. But sometimes the planet gets smaller, and less abstract. Sometimes the problem of theodicy is a local one, and becomes Fred’s problem, or my dad’s problem. I pray for mercy, for wholeness, for healing. I don’t know how else to pray. I pray for the ability to care, not to become jaded in the face of overwhelming need. And I pray for the ability to juggle those overwhelming needs with the ridiculous activities that take up our time and energies, for the ability to focus on Interactive Voice Recognition software when I think we should be working on trying to develop our God and Suffering recognition radar. I’d like to develop a project plan for that one. But there is no plan, or if there is, it is an inscrutable one. All I know is we’re all on the critical path, and I’d like to finish a little less broken than when I started.