Monday, October 11, 2010

Bug Stories

During the heat wave, pestilential pantry moths invaded our cupboards. We had to clean everything out and put all the dry goods into airtight containers.

When I mentioned this to one of the people I work with at the hospital, he nodded knowingly and proceded to tell me about how he lived in a house where the front was covered in ivy. One evening he came home and noticed something moving in the ivy. He looked closer and saw that it was snails--hundreds of snails--"I kid you not, Virgie, it must have been over a thousand snails." So he and the other resident poured salt water all over the legions of snails before they could destroy the plants.

When I mentioned the moth problem to a woman I work with at church, she gave the same wise nod and told about the time her brother wanted to replace a broken tile in her kitchen floor. The night the tile was removed, she noticed the cat acting strangely--jumping around, all agitated--and when she went into the kitchen, the floor was just crawling with termites. It sounded like something from a horrible nightmare.

Does everyone have a bug story, some disturbing encounter with the world of creepy crawlies that they're just waiting for the opportunity to talk about? There's something primal, even archetypal about the horror of seething insectoid masses. Removing a tile, turning over a rock, it feels like uncovering a frightening alien world--a world that feeds on the death and waste of our own kind.

And it's frightening how powerful insects, spiders, scorpions and the like can be. So tiny and fragile, yet capable of sickening, even killing; destroying homes; decimating food supplies; spreading disease. I suppose an intractable enmity is to be expected ...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Presbyterian Fatalism

Last week my supervisor at the pediatric hospital asked how I've been dealing with all the tragic stuff I see. I was caught off guard and it took me a moment to understand what he meant. I really have not been very deeply affected by all the sad, sad stories which I step briefly in and out of. When I'm in the room, I feel sad if the patient/family is sad, hopeful if they're hopeful, but I generally don't take anything with me when I leave--except some anxiety about how I could have served them better.

Reflecting later upon this sense of detachment, I thought perhaps it comes from a kind of Presbyterian fatalism. I really do believe that the entirety of creation is ordered by the inscrutable wisdom of God. I don't know why God would ordain so much evil, so much suffering and pain--especially for children--but I did not create the world. I cannot see from my limited perspective how it is happening, but I trust that all things are working together for the good of those who love God.

A high view of providence is very much out of style nowadays, I think. Such a view seems to make God the author of evil. I don't think it does--perhaps another time I'll go into that, but right now I want to consider whether it's monstrous of me not to be overly upset by evil because I trust that God's purposes are being worked out through it somehow. Am I falling into a kind of white-washing of evil, pretending things are okay when they are not--am I guilty of the very thing I deplore?

I want to say: No, because I simply cannot bear the weight of grief and outrage that I would feel if I responded commensurately to the horror of every awful happening I found out about. If other people's tragedies became my tragedies, I would never stop crying. So I feel as much sorrow as I must in order to serve the suffering persons well. But after that, I must entrust them into God's hands.

I'm not really satisfied with that ... Perhaps because I'm falling into the ancient ("original") sin of wanting to be like God. God alone bears the full weight of the whole world's suffering. To be mortal is to accept limitations. It seems odd not to accept simply and gladly the limit mercifully placed on my own suffering, yet we human beings are a perverse lot.

Perhaps also, though, I know that things are not supposed to be too easy. ... Wait a minute. Or are they? Jesus said to take up his yoke, which is easy, and his burden, which is light. Hmmm ...

Well, I don't think I'm going to resolve this one before dinner. Which I'm supposed to be serving right now. Perhaps clarity will come another time ...

Friday, October 1, 2010

evil an illusion?

Studying world religions in college, I found there was something profoundly appealing about all of them, except Buddhism. To me, Buddhism felt tepid, lukewarm. The ideal of moderation in all things I do not find ... inspiring. The Buddhist way of being sounded very dull and boring to me.

Also, I think Buddhism is the most difficult of the major world religions to reconcile with a western-rationalist worldview. I appreciate having some ambiguity, some paradox--but some of those maxims and koans and stuff in the Buddhist tradition seem quite anti-rational; they offend my desire to undertand and make sense of the world--as well as my expectation of others that they should communicate clearly and try to facilitate mutual understanding (not confustication).

But I think most of all, what bothered me about Buddhism is the idea of evil being an illusion. It's very important to me, both because of my personal history and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to name and confront evil. Unmasking the wicked injustices of his time was a very important aspect of Jesus' ministry--culminating in his crucifixion. The crucified Son of God is the ultimate witness against human violence and degradation. We are rightly ashamed to acknowledge that the execution of an innocent man is no aberration in an otherwise peaceful society, but rather that it is representative and symbolic of how human beings normally treat each other ...

And of course, the Christian understanding is that only by naming and confronting evil can it be overcome. Forgiveness required a cross. Evil could not simply be ignored and quietly pardoned, under the table, as it were.

Anyway, that's why I always felt antagonistic toward the ideas of Buddhism. But recently I've gotten more interested in meditation (through self hypnosis, which I learned about from a library book years ago). And I started thinking: you know, some kinds of evil actually are illusions, in a sense. Some evil comes simply from wrong ways of thinking and faulty beliefs that I have. They have no objective reality; they're just psychological mistakes I keep making, over and over. And I think meditation can help to free me of such "illusive" evils.

Anyway, that's something I've been thinking about ...