William Blake: Job Rebuked by His Friends
THE LAUGHTER OF JOB
“Not yet, my friend,”
said Job to a raven,
yellow pus crusting his thighs.
“I’m not carrion yet.
No happiness lasts,
but here on my dunghill
I have learned the blessing:
there’s no perfect unhappiness either.”
“If you can laugh,
you are never poor,”
said Job to his dour
comforters. “Look at my
jewelry of emerald flies!”
He patted his blistered
bald head: “See?
I have transcended my hair.”
“It’s already broken,”
said Job to a stranger,
lifting his potsherd
like a drinking cup.
“My friend, my friend,
let us not waste time
cursing the Nameless.
“What fine camel droppings,”
said Job to a Levite.
“Who can say that I haven’t
weatherproofed my house?”
The Levite reproved him:
“Did you get an answer?”
“Yes,” Job chuckled, “but not
from the Voice in the Whirlwind.
It was the Adversary, walking
up and down, who winked:
Because you didn’t laugh,
meaning you were not free.
And Job began laughing,
and his sores were healed.
He got new sheep and she-asses,
new children by a new wife.
He’d doze during prayer;
when chided, he’d laugh,
“God loves us more
when we sleep.”
To a servant he’d point,
“Here, have this lamb” –
knowing any moment
a messenger could come,
crying from afar:
“All you possessed is gone;
in an instant I saw it gone” –
and Job would reply,
“Naked I came,
naked I shall return.
Ah, I like to go naked.”
~ Oriana © 2013
Charles Sherman: The Laughter of Job
This sculpture is a tribute to Mitchell Shore, a friend who loved to joke. He died at 46 of acute leukemia, after stoically enduring repeated high-dose chemo. As the comforters of this Job, we basically used denial, speaking to him as if we didn't know he was doomed. He endured that too.
The problem of evil --“why do bad things happen to good people?” -- has been the subject of debate ever since Job’s friends tried to convince him that he or his children must have sinned to deserve such suffering because, after all, god is just. According to Job’s friends, to say otherwise is blasphemy, so if you don’t admit you’ve sinned, you are thereby accusing god of injustice and committing an even greater sin of blasphemy.
I was never especially interested in the problem of evil when I was growing up. Theodicy (trying to explain why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good deity permits evil) was best left to theologians, just like the problem of free will versus pre-destination. Speaking of free will, that was the reasonably satisfying answer that the church gave: evil exists because god will not interfere with free will. (The question about violating the laws of nature came later and struck me as a lot more thorny.)
But in terms of the slaughter of the innocents and other kinds of suffering, given Poland’s history, there was no assumption that you had to have done something bad to bring on suffering. That millions suffered unspeakable horrors was an absolute fact at the center of the psyche: good people suffer. Good people go through hell right here on earth. There was even a pious-sounding saying: “God sends suffering to those he loves” (does anyone want to be loved as Job was loved?)
Blake, Satan Smiting Job with Boils
Add to this all the saints who flagellated themselves to “mortify the flesh” -- as if life needed any help. So there was a complete acceptance of suffering that didn’t assume anyone deserved it: “that’s life.” Many, like my family, used humor as defense: I grew up familiar with several often-repeated jokes brought from Auschwitz and Radogoszcz (a little-known factory camp near Łódź). Yes, there was humor even in Auschwitz. And yes, some are capable of cracking a joke even on their death-bed.
My father was one such joke-to-the-end kind of person. Admitted to the hospital during the final stage of Parkinson’s, when he lost the ability to swallow, he was told to take off all his clothes and put an a hospital gown. Of course he had to have help. “What! These beautiful young nurses are to look at a naked old geezer like me?” he replied with mock agitation. Six hours later he was dead.
There is a chart making its rounds on the Internet. I remember seeing the first version of what in Buddhism is called the “first noble truth” ten years ago, maybe even before then.
I especially enjoy the Hare Krishna addition. And yes, I more or less agree with the “I deserve it” statement about Catholicism. Humans are sinners by definition -- St. Augustine wrote much on that. I don’t know if this if the current practice, but “in my time,” even small children were told they were sinners. Still, suffering wasn’t necessarily seen as punishment. Rather, it was a kind of pre-Purgatory. It was good for you. Welcoming suffering by pretending it’s good for us is yet another way of coping with it. (I knew a woman who suffered from asthma; when I expressed hope that science will find a way to combat the disease, she said, “Oh no. I don’t think we should try to get rid of diseases; we need them for our spiritual development.”)
But Job does not welcome suffering. He’s one of my role models because he does not debase himself. He does not beat his breast and make a false confession of being a sinner who deserves to be punished. In the end he sees that god is a dangerous megalomaniac who needs to be appeased. But at no point can Job be pressured to demean himself as a sinner just so that god could be seen as just.
Blake Job’s Evil Dreams
With dreams upon my bed thou searest me and affrightest me with visions.
HAVING A “DEAL” WITH GOD
When I was in college, a psychology instructor regaled us with this sinister joke: a man spends a day in town doing business. Night falls while he is walking back to his village through a forest. He feels somewhat scared, but reassures himself: “I am a good person. If there is justice, nothing bad will happen to me.” Just then a deep male voice is heard: “There is no justice.”
The class sat in tense silence. Not the tiniest chuckle. The instructor seemed puzzled, so he repeated: “And this deep, godlike voice says, There is no justice.” Still no response from the shell-shocked students.
Thinking about it now, I am struck by two things: first, I never forgot this joke. It engraved itself on my mind forever. Second, those in their teens and early twenties haven’t yet lived long enough to comprehend the joke. They haven’t yet suffered enough to understand that suffering will happen even if you are utterly blameless, angelic.
But regardless of age, some will always cling to the belief that being a good person will protect them from misfortune. It’s a common cognitive bias known as the “just-world hypothesis”: good is rewarded and evil is punished. Hence the tendency to blame the victim.
“I know why this happened”
Still, when a child (young or adult) dies of leukemia, nobody tells the parents that that’s what they deserved. It’s difficult to imagine anyone insensitive enough and so locked into an archaic reward-and-punishment mentality as to say to the parents, “I know why this happened. You stopped going to church. You had it coming.”
Nevertheless, the parents themselves may form some notion of wrong-doing to explain the suffering. When it became obvious that Mitchell would die, his mother said: “I know why this happened. We didn’t have him bar-mitzvah-ed.”
Apparently it didn’t occur to her that this explanation implies that god is a sadistic monster: “Let the kid die of leukemia. That will teach his parents a lesson!” She and Mitchell’s father both felt guilty. If only they had him bar-mitzva-ed, like his older brother! But with Mitchell, they got stingy (nor was Mitchell the least interested, seeing what his brother had to go through). And now this -- Mitchell’s death of leukemia (at the age of 46, but sometimes there’s a delay in divine punishment). The guilt must have been eating away at them: both parents died within 18 months of Mitchell’s death. The older brother, the one who got bar-mitzva-ed but quickly lost interest in Judaism, became an orthodox Jew.
I wonder: did he turn to orthodoxy as protection against the wrath of an unpredictable god? Jung, in his “Answer to Job,” suggested that instead of thinking of god in terms of Trinity, it would make sense to see a Quaternity, the fourth face of god being The Demonic, or the Shadow. After the speech from the whirlwind, even the initial boasting to Satan: “And have you seen my servant Job?” seems to come from a malignant narcissist who cares only about his glory.
(Pushing this to the extreme, I can imagine a scenario where god and Satan continue to amuse themselves by making bets. Perhaps the climax came when Satan said, “Sure, many still fast on Yom Kippur. But send them Holocaust, LOL, and see if they don’t curse you to your face.”)
(Speaking of Yom Kippur, that’s the opening of Rabbi Kushner’s justly famous best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The parents of a young woman who died of heart disease come to him and say, “We know why this happened. We didn’t fast on last Yom Kippur.”)
But let's turn more directly to "having a deal with god." In a lecture I recently attended, “The Otherness of God,” Rabbi Mordecai Finley (his true name, and he looks Irish too, down to being a red-head) quoted the example of a woman, a member of his congregation, who came to him wailing, “I’ve lived such a good life. I’ve donated so much to charity. How could this be happening me?” “This” was her discovery that had husband of thirty years had been unfaithful -- not once, but many times throughout the marriage.
Rabbi Finley was unsparing as he described to us this modern Ms. Job. She imagined she had a deal with god, he said. She’d do good things, she’d donate to charity, and in return nothing bad would touch her. In effect she was saying, “I’ve donated so much to charity, how could my husband turn out to be unfaithful?” The faulty logic is obvious and even ridiculous when we make it so blatant.
But there is something deeper to it, the Rabbi explained. Some people assume that they have a “deal with god.” The deal is, for instance, that they will stay faithful, and in return their spouse will be faithful also. They will rise early to make breakfast for their children, and in return none of their children will become alcoholics and/or drug addicts. They will perform various good deeds, and in return god will grant them financial success -- or whatever reward matters to the person.
So what happened to the wisdom contained in the saying, “Virtue is its own reward”? What about devotion to goodness because that’s a good thing in itself? Are you truly a good person if you do good not for its own sake, but because you expect a reward?
Not that anyone is entirely pure of heart -- but we should at least try not remain at the level of a young child without intrinsic moral values, guided by parental rewards and punishments.
Albrecht Dürer, Job on the Dunghill and His Wife
MINI-JOB IN THE NEW TESTAMENT: JOHN 9: 1-3
We know that the story of Job goes back thousands of years. We take it for granted that the sin-and-punishment mentality was prevalent in ancient times. The New Testament is indeed revolutionary; its stories often focus on compassion and forgiveness.
However, there is an unsettling (at least to me) story in the Gospel of John about a man blind from birth:
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
The logic of blaming the blind man escapes me: since he was blind from birth, when could he have sinned? Before birth, in the womb?
But never mind. This is not the only time that the disciples seem not very bright. Let’s assume that everyone blames the parents: they must have trespassed in a serious way to deserve this punishment of having a blind child. The parents are probably ostracized as sinners, while the child suffers due to being blind.
Jesus explains that in this case no one has sinned. The child was born blind and grew up blind simply to serve as showcase for god’s healing power. All this suffering so that a proper subject of a miracle should exist. Is the deity who wants to show off his “works” by any chance still the malignant narcissist who boasts of having created the Behemoth in front of miserable Job?
Blake: The Behemoth
FROM “PUNISHMENT” TO “IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT”
Most people would probably say that sometimes what happens to us is caused by something we did, and sometimes it’s just circumstances. There is malignant strand in New Age thought: “What did you do to ATTRACT the accident (disease, loss of a job, etc), with the answer usually given as “You were thinking negative thoughts.” But this particular view has had its heyday and has now fallen in disrepute. Even those who say “There are no accidents” are usually willing to admit that sometimes it’s nobody’s fault: it’s the circumstances. It’s really possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the opposite also holds true.
Most would also agree that life is not fair: some people are born with genes for good looks and high intelligence, while others come into this world with genes that predispose them to all kinds of bad things, including high odds of dying from cancer before the age of fifty. Some children are born to rich parents in prosperous countries; others are born to poor parents in a country particularly subject to famines and natural disasters. (“In their future lives, all Americans are born in Bangladesh,” I heard someone joke.)
As we learn more about the natural causes of various misfortunes, be it diseases or hurricanes, the less likely we are to assume that the victims somehow deserved their fates. Even assuming that the parents whose children died in the Sandyhook massacre were flawed in some way, it would be monstrous to say that those parents DESERVED their extreme suffering. And it would be insane to say that the children deserved to die.
More and more people agree that natural events have no moral causes. True, there are still fundamentalist televangelists who propound the archaic worldview when they put forth explanations such as “This happened because there is no prayer in the public schools”; “The earthquake in Haiti was punishment for the belief in voodoo.” But such explanations now arouse increasing disapproval. And fortunately no one has said that the man whose legs were blown off during the Boston bombings must have done something to deserve it. To say it would be seen as obscene. We have morally progressed at least this far!
Blake: Job's Comforters
THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE
The more we learn about natural causes of events, the more likely we are to “grant innocence” to other people and ourselves. Even if we or they did, in fact, do something wrong, we know there are causes other than “some people are just genetically evil.” For instance, we know that child abuse can be perpetuated from generation to generation until someone breaks the chain. Breaking the chain is not just refusing to be a perpetrator of abuse, dealing out to others what has been dealt out to us. It’s also forgiving those who abused us once we understand what caused them to act that way.
We have no trouble granting innocence to animals and small children. The mentally handicapped are also seen as innocents and aren’t blamed, even if they somehow “misbehave.” But older children, adolescents, and adults -- the easiest path is to blame them. This presumption of guilt is based on ascribing a great deal of free will to those individuals. A more deterministic attitude sees the multiple causes, the context, the circumstances. It doesn’t leap into shame and blame. It grants innocence.
“Yes, but what about smokers who end up dying of lung cancer? Isn’t it their own fault?” Again, it’s so easy to speak in terms of “fault” for which the cancer is the just punishment. Addiction experts know that this is not a productive approach. First, you grant a person dignity and the presumption of innocence -- then you might have a chance to influence that person’s behavior.
You offer empathy.
You offer humility: If circumstances had been different, this could be me.
There is still a long way to go before, on the whole, we cease to be judgmental. But I think a lot of progress has been made, and it’s a “done deal” that we are moving toward a more comprehensive “presumption of innocence.”
We are finally accepting that a lot of suffering comes everyone’s way, and that life isn’t fair. It simply isn’t. There is no need to defend some imaginary justice, cosmic or divine. “There is no justice.” That’s how things are.
IF THERE IS NOT JUSTICE, THEN WHAT?
One interesting development is the emergence of a parallel: as life has grown less harsh (better health, longer life expectancy, a social safety net), the Western culture has grown less judgmental and more merciful. In his The Evolution of God, Robert Wright has developed this argument in relation to the concept of a ruthless or merciful god. Good times went hand in hand with the concept of mercy. The early deities were cruel; bad times tended to a regression toward a cruel deity.
In his review of Wright’s book, Paul Bloom says:
God has mellowed. The God that most Americans worship occasionally gets upset about abortion and gay marriage, but he is a softy compared with the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible. That was a warrior God, savagely tribal, deeply insecure about his status and willing to commit mass murder to show off his powers. But at least Yahweh had strong moral views, occasionally enlightened ones, about how the Israelites should behave. His hunter-gatherer ancestors, by contrast, were doofus gods. Morally clueless, they were often yelled at by their people and tended toward quirky obsessions. One thunder god would get mad if people combed their hair during a storm or watched dogs mate.
Cruel times, cruel gods; better times, more forgiving gods (“Our Softie, who are in heaven”?). Of course it’s we humans who have evolved and “mellowed.” It’s interesting that the view of god as a “softie” is more politically correct than the idea that humans have made moral progress, as Steven Pinker points out in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The view that the concept of god has grown benevolent does not seem to jar readers; but the view that humans have grown less violent and more kind is widely regarded as controversial.
It’s no longer politically correct to pray that god smite our enemies. But it’s still not politically correct to admit that humans are basically good rather than evil; that evil is a pathology that develops under certain conditions, and those conditions can be changed.
Blake: When the Morning Stars Sang Together
This has also been the time of religious decline, at least in the West. If god is a cognitive illusion and exists only subjectively, in the minds of believers, then where do we turn for consolation when “bad things happen to good people”?
The answer is practically contained in the question: we turn to good people. We turn to friends and kind strangers. And we turn to the knowledge that suffering is inescapable, but life is still full of goodness and beauty. It’s not to be disparaged just because it must end.
A lot of mystery remains. That’s why life is such a great adventure. Among Mitchell’s last words while he was still conscious were these: “Don’t be afraid to die.” This could also mean: “don’t be afraid to live.”
He was delirious of course,
the Do Not Resuscitate code
taped over his bed. Suddenly he said,
“So how can I kill myself?”
Minutes later: “I wish every day
could be like this.”
I knew then he could now go –
was well-traveled in heaven and hell.
First chemo, his swollen lungs
scratched against his ribs,
the pain so searing that he
slipped into twilight and saw,
slightly ajar, a door
lit with a warm amber glow.
It was the Door of Death –
behind it, “a friendly place.”
The Door of Life was shut;
behind it, “a place of hardship.”
He hesitated as he stood
before the door of light,
then turned toward the door
of darkness, meaning life –
back under the buzzing, prying
fluorescents of the cancer ward.
I wonder if he heard music –
as I did that night,
the year when every day
I thought of suicide.
I drove along dark empty streets,
meandered aimlessly for miles,
when on my car radio I heard
the slow movement of Mozart’s
Twenty Fifth piano concerto –
the music so loving, so calm,
that I went home, and slept
without crying myself to sleep.
I imagine that again he saw
the lit door when he did
walk through it. Maybe he heard
music calling him home –
a barely imagined love song,
like clouds you cannot tell
from distant peaks, or the slow
movement of a concerto
so pure it breaks and heals
your heart – and what for him
was the Door of Death,
for me was the Door of Life.
~ Oriana © 2013
Superb blog. Great depth. Digesting it now.
Thank you. The issues are huge. They have been debated for centuries. I am so grateful to be living at a time when we know a lot of natural causes for various kinds of adversity, and the tendency to be harsh and judgmental is growing less. As understanding grows, terms such as “sin” and “divine punishment” are dropping from common usage.
I love this blog. So many different viewpoints on life and death, suffering and health. Love the way it all came together in the last sentence. I think Mitchell would love getting so much attention so many years after he died.
The Blake images are very expressive of Job.
”Rabbi Mordecai Finley (his true name, and he looks Irish too, down to being a red-head)" is politically incorrect but it's what a good writer says.
Mitchell is unforgettable.
Since my blog posts are personal essays, and not, say, academic articles, I have the privilege of making it a more intimate conversation with the reader; poems also have an intimate tone; in fact lyrical poetry must have that "intimate whisper" to it in order to succeed.
I love that poem [“The Laughter of Job”]. I don't remember it being Biblical at all, but I endorse the message. It's the only way.
Particularly liked that the images were nasty and depressing but somehow the poem was humorous.
I don't mean funny because Job was laughing but funny because the poet thought them up.
It's rather like the Buddha had undertaken rewriting the rather harsh Old Testament.
The Old Testament is indeed “rather harsh.” Harsh times, harsh religion. We tend to regress and be more judgmental when under stress, in the state of fear. Yes, laughter is one of the best means of coping with adversity, possibly the best one.
Acceptance and moving on are almost among the best ways of coping. Having supportive friends is a great gift, not only during hardship, but especially during hardship. Receiving empathy from even one person can prevent “falling apart” and the beginning of healing.