Deaths and (Re)births Part 5: The Ascent

Part 5 of 5. 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

 Deaths and (Re)births Part 5: The Ascent

In the end, time–which had colluded with the physical world in our slow march toward death–also eventually served as an invaluable ally, and we slowly and gradually climbed out of the deep hole into which we had been buried. No dramatic rescue, no earth-shattering event on an epic scale. A series of small, grace-filled events helped keep us afloat. We were blessed to eventually move into a much larger and newer apartment. My Logic professor unexpectedly, at the last moment, decided to change the format of the class final to a written essay (which I easily produced) instead of a series of symbolic logic proofs (which I would have failed). The twins eventually graduated from their heart monitors and oxygen lines and we began to take them out after many months, first on walks, then to restaurants and malls. Gradually, we began to sleep again. Though it seemed an eternity at the time, the agonizingly slow but steady return to semi-functionality (of which I’ve been able to relate only the hundredth part) had lasted about 2 years.

But we weren’t the same. Physically and emotionally, parts of us had died, indeed, had died many deaths, as new selves variously grappled with our world, created from bodies and minds that could no longer endure, except for remnants, the ethereal, barely-there remains of the corpses we had become. Those remnants would become new bodies and new minds, with new thoughts and new ways of struggling to live. And they would eventually deteriorate into remnants themselves, and the painful birthing process would begin anew. As we gradually ascended out of the grave, our new selves could no longer know the selves that had died, “pierced with deep wounds.” I look back at prior versions of myself with the eyes of a foreigner, an alien, barely recognizing those incarnations.

And yet, it was difficult to tell where death had ravaged us and where rebirth into what we became replaced it. They seemed one and the same process, one and the same event. Our new selves felt stronger but. . . aged. We felt old beyond our years. For a long time we could only look at the people and the world around us with grave solemnity. We had arisen out of a private holocaust. Everything was new, without a history, because we, in the remnant of our old selves, preceded everything around us.

For a long time I could not talk about God, or really anything related to religion. Prior to this time, Doctrine and Covenants 122 had been my favorite scriptural narrative–a dialogue between Christ and Joseph Smith, leader of God’s chosen people, suffering unremittingly in the bare existence of Liberty Jail, crying out to God–where was He hiding while his people suffered and died? And God’s response: if even hell itself threatens to swallow you whole in its rage and pain, “all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good.” I would quote this scripture all the time (often, I’m sure, quite insufferably) to members of the church I encountered on my mission, who were struggling with various trials. Now, I no longer knew what to think of it. Perhaps God was not all-powerful, or maybe God’s power was of a different sort than physical, interventionist power. I thought I could accept that power within a religious context might be qualitatively different than power in the contexts with which I was more familiar. But a God who would not speak to me in the midst of my worst moments? How was that possible? In this way, the question remained with me even after I had accepted that I could not (and, in fact, ultimately did not want to) rid myself of the core elements of my religious self. God had become a stranger to me, and yet, because I now had to reckon and wrestle with God, as I never had to before, in a way he had become more real than at any prior time in my life, much more present than those times that I recalled being in some kind of prayerful communication with him.

But this realization was of no immediate help. I could not see how to reconcile myself to this kind of God. Everything had been stripped away and the bare fact of God’s presence (silent and immovable) was all that was left. What was I to do with this?

The answer did not come for some time. In the meantime, I continued to attend church–by force of will and reluctance to accept the social consequences of inactivity–eventually holding callings and even bearing a testimony once or twice. But it was not because I felt some kind of prompting or yearning; I was curious about the possibility of my new self being able to carry on the practices of my old, dead self. A testimony was to be had in the bearing of it, right? But I did not feel anything–no spiritual confirmation, no witness of truth, no gift of comfort. I supposed, then, I had failed my test of faith, and this was the natural consequence.

More time passed. The twins grew older and a second daughter was added to our family. Another series of miracles and improbabilities (sure, why not? God existed–he just didn’t think enough of me to talk to me, and therefore all miracles and horrible tragedies were both totally mysterious and seemingly arbitrary and capricious), and I was in graduate school to study, of course–religion. Tormented by my experiences, frustrated with unsatisfactory conclusions, haunted by the silent God who incongruously would not leave me alone, I ironically sought refuge in a place where I would talk about, write about, and constantly think about God in some way or other. On Sundays I could then be extra unsatisfied with the way my fellow Saints spoke about and lived their religion. Uneasily, I would note that many of my professors were the same as me. Most of them were atheists, but they were “Christ-haunted;” they had (also with deep irony) devoted their godless lives to thinking about God all the time. In a way God was as much a presence in their lives as he was in mine, and in much the same way. Perhaps, then, I was an atheist after all. Of course, there were many other factors that also constituted my desire to become a teacher, but I was also going to figure this out, however long it took. I was under no illusion that simply “thinking” my way into a solution was possible or would even be sufficient if I could, but I had to find some way of explaining a phenomenon to myself that no other human being could apparently account for to my satisfaction.

For years I thought about, wrote about, took classes on, and talked about the problem of evil and suffering. (An early version of my written conclusions is here). But everything I brought to bear on the subject felt inadequate, even a betrayal of those who suffered greatly by offering reasons instead of comfort and mercy.

Then one day, simple as that, I re-read Matthew 27:46, traditionally known in Christian history as the “Word of Abandonment:”

“Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This was the Psalmist’s cry in Pslam 22. This was Joseph Smith’s cry in Liberty Jail. Only, Joseph had received an answer. Jesus, here on the cross, in the midst of ultimate suffering, in answer to his cry received–silence.
I had no immediate response to this. Christ himself was greeted by silence in his most desperate hour. Did this complicate things even more? Perhaps. But I realized that this howl of lamentation, this crying out for the hidden God was not the question of an atheist. It was the question of a believer, one who cannot help but believe, but whose belief offers no comfort, no revelation, no answers of solid certainty.
This experience remained with me for a while. Again, no easy answers here, but that was actually a sign of hope. I was sick of easy answers that avoided hard questions by appealing to happy endings. We do not live the ending. We are always already living the middle. I needed something that would wrench me right down the middle. I had been through something hard, something soul-destroying. Surely any kind of light shed on my experience would not merely reveal that I simply hadn’t prayed hard enough, or had enough faith, or misunderstood prophetic teachings, or didn’t do enough to serve others, as if God was looking for any excuse he could to cut himself off from me. If there were answers, they would need to penetrate my bones and tear open my soul in order to reach me.
Gradually, without fanfare, I also began to realize that communication with me might not be what God was after, if God was after anything. And perhaps it wasn’t what I really had needed. The more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that revelation as word–as words–would never have reached me. Was God (or anyone else for that matter) going to say something to me that I couldn’t already find in scripture, something that would surpass Liberty Jail and Job and Isaiah? I would never have listened, in any case. Instead, perhaps what was really happening was, on some level, not communication but communion.

I could not rid myself of God’s presence but perhaps his constant presence was reducible to essentially this: that there could be no words God could have given me, no explanations for my suffering, no reasons why he could or could not intervene, even if there were in reality such reasons. Theoretically, I cannot know with certainty that there were not reasons on some level, though I strongly believed that nothing could explain it all away. But to provide me with them, even if they existed, would have been to betray my suffering by justifying it. There is unspeakable suffering that simply, worlds without end, cannot be justified with reasons–it is unspeakable. I do not want to compare my suffering with the suffering of so many others, but my suffering, for me, could not be spoken. It could not be painted or sung. It could not be brought down on engraved tablets from a mountain. Nevertheless, perhaps it could be communed with. What, I asked myself, was God actually doing as I was suffering? What was God doing while so many others of his children moaned and wept under the weight of their burdens? What was he doing while his beloved son cried out for confirmation that he had not been abandoned? Communion comes from the Greek, and it means “fellowship.” For the first time I felt that whatever else was happening, whatever reasons and laws were being followed that I was ignorant of (and, frankly, wanted to remain ignorant of), God was in communion with me in my suffering, my fellow-sufferer, the one whom Enoch saw would weep over his children, but did not, could not,  hide his eyes from them. At last, something of what I can only say was the Holy Spirit finally penetrated me–I had come to know that God was there, silently and immovably there. But now I knew he was was also weeping.

Years later I would write a paper addressing that most problematic of Mormon scriptures regarding the problem of evil and suffering, Alma 14. In that paper I wrote the following, an incomplete, certainly revisable, culmination of what I had learned in my own experiences:

The religious life cannot be a comfort to us. We think that spiritual comfort or strength is the primary benefit of lived religion but that’s because we continue to bind belief in God to the causes and origins of our sufferings. The call from scripture to repent, to constantly revise yourself in your perpetual brokenness, to reconsider your world, and to reach outward to others as they also call to us is better defined as exhausting, disorienting, and sometimes disheartening. No, religion is anything but comforting and our genuine encounters with God are often painfully transformative. It is radical indeed to consider a relationship to God that is not comforting and reassuring. But there is still comfort to be had. In Mormonism comfort is a divine mandate (Mosiah 18) but not as comfort derived from God: we are to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort.  And others can and do comfort us, most often in silence, and in ways that have nothing to do with explanations. In the Mormon theological perspective we participate in mourning that did not originate in ourselves, the suffering of which did not originate in ourselves…

The very fact of presence is comforting, even, and maybe especially, in silence. That Alma had a constant companion in his suffering, and in the witnessing of ultimate suffering, is perhaps symbolic of the significance of this truth. Together we suffer, though there are no explanations, nothing that can satisfy our intellect. Even on the cross, even after God himself withdrew his presence and Christ cries out that he had been forsaken by God, we usually say that he was lonelier than he had ever been. But is that true? At the foot of the cross, stood the women he had been closest to in life. On either side of him, fellow mortals, also nailed to trees, sharing the form of his death. None of these could provide explanations to him, and of course perhaps he needed none. In any case, there were none to provide comforting explanations to the women at the cross, nor to his fellow-sufferers. That they were together, that they would not leave him, was all there was. God withdraws from the scene altogether, and what is left? The mourners and the comforters, to whatever extent possible. Not that God is simply unable to provide reasons. But if he truly suffers with us, of what value can these reasons possibly have? Can they turn genuine suffering into non-suffering? No, this seems putatively impossible. If God suffers with us, not just physically but emotionally or psychologically, including the suffering of the absurd and the meaningless, then reasons will not save us. The only thing that will save us, perhaps, is first—to discern that there are always those, worlds without end, who need us to mourn for them—the task to which we devote ourselves in the presence of the suffering of others. Second, to have available to us at least the possibility to realize that at least one remains with us, noticeable even in absence, the only one whose presence or absence, for all of us, believer and non-believer alike, is always manifest, always unmistakably apparent for each one of us, the one who eternally remains, even if in silence.

We learn, each of us, as if we are an Adam or an Eve, for the first time, what God is. No philosophy or theology can explain it. Scripture only vaguely alludes to it, as the records of people who themselves were revealed to as if for the first time. There are no answers that apply to every situation.

I have told a story of my experiences here from the perspective of one who suffered. More broadly speaking, however, suffering presents a task to be done. That task is the task of lifting and mourning. If my experiences gave me anything they really only gave me this: a well of empathy and love on which to draw and offer others in their own brokenness and weary despair; a willing (if still imperfect) haven for the downtrodden.

I am not one you can come to for scriptures to be quoted, or even prayers on your behalf, though I will do both if you want me to. My personal religion is no longer a religion of preaching a testimony of propositional certainty about particular doctrines. Instead, I am one who can be approached by those in tears, near total collapse, ready and able to lift up hands and weep and mourn in silent communion over that which cannot be spoken. I believe that this is, in the end, for us who live in the everlasting presence of God, the task for which we are born and re-born.

§

Comments

  1. I apologize for not getting this out earlier. I was traveling for an academic conference and just arrived home yesterday.

  2. KerBearRN says:

    Thank you so much for this. We discussed the Atonement in Sunday School (as part of a discussion on Moroni) yesterday and talked about our responsibilities to others (mourn with those who mourn, etc etc). I couldn’t help but think of what you had been writing here. You have spoken to me in a very deep place, a similar place that has been wondering and feeling shut off and abandoned. This helps. Thank you.

  3. We are always already living the middle.

    Yes: in medias res. Nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends but we are always already underway,

    What a wonderful, sobering, heartening conclusion to this essay, Jacob; fantastic, heartfelt writing, bearing so much truth. Not Mormon truth, at least not particularly, but a deeply Christian, profoundly divine truth: that God is also in medias res, abiding, communing, weeping and challenging and rebuking and blessing and, mostly I suppose, listening. He is Presence, and that is enough. Indeed, it has to be.

  4. It is interesting to me that we try to explain evil, and we try to give a purpose to suffering. It seems to me that they are not things created for a purpose. They exist because they exist. They are eternal. Even if all suffering, or all evil, could somehow be done away, they would continue to exist as potentials that would reemerge at the first leak in whatever had held them back. One may as well ask why the color purple exists, or why anything at all exists, as why suffering exists. It does exist, and everyone and everything, God included, also exist within the same reality.

  5. I have no words–really. I am overwhelmed.

  6. I checked back and I checked back, then I refreshed the page, then I checked back again for this last portion to be posted. Thank you.

    God is love, and we are trying to become like him. We are trying to become love. This is, ultimately, the goal; is it not? Your suffering has given you a well of empathy and love that shine forth to me as a beacon of hope, a message that our toil and strife truly lead us forward on a celestial road.

  7. Stunning, Jacob. I don’t know how you found words for these deep things. I will read this again and again. You have articulated things I have felt but couldn’t express clearly, even in my own mind. You have taught me what I have known, but in a way I can absorb and metabolize. Thank you for this. A thousand times, thank you.

  8. I’m gonna print all 5 parts out so I can refer to it at a later date.

  9. .

  10. courtney says:

    This was absolutely beautiful and so, so needed. Thank you for sharing something so personal.

  11. +1 to what SteveP said

  12. Good stuff.

  13. Jacob, this series has been one of the most beautiful and powerful things I have ever read, anywhere.

  14. M Miles says:

    Jacob, I love your use of words–and your beautiful metaphors. Perhaps one of the most stunning things for me as I’ve enjoyed this series is seeing the transformation of a father. As a woman, I am surrounded by narratives of women becoming mothers. Yet the sudden, stinging sensations that arise from new parenthood are no less startling for fathers. I am sad there are not more heartfelt, well-written stories like yours.

  15. Jacob, I had the privilege of hearing you read your Alma 14 paper last summer and I will never forget hearing your voice crack when you spoke about the lament that can only be answered with silence. Knowing your personal experiences makes that memory even more meaningful. I’m so glad you took the risk of sharing these glimpses of yourself. Thank you for this invaluable gift.

  16. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say. I’ve been deleting everything I’ve written. Thank you Jacob.

  17. ErinAnn says:

    This is how I feel about God. To me, a major part of religion is that it is also a tool to be used in bringing us closer to God, or for teaching us to be more like God.

  18. Sometimes I think I am close to having moved through enough of my personal trauma that I can find that communion with God. I am certain that the Atonement will fill in the holes left by the nails pounded into my soul and then ripped out.

    The man who molested me drove the nails in, I would never be whole if they weren’t excised, and yet as long as the nails plugged up the memories, I could pretend that my “child like faith” was still in tact. Some of the nails came out easily, others were yanked out by well meaning people who were checking to see if they were real nails, or just a figment of my imagination. The figment theory was popular, since the man with the nails had “primed the pump” to make people see the nails as my choice, one he went along with unwillingly.

    I love the way you express leaving your old self behind. In my metaphor, I bled so much from the wounds from the nails being removed, that the body of youth and innocence was bled dry. All that was left was a wounded Spirit whose only assets were a strong testimony of Jesus Christ and a powerful will to live.

    “I have told a story of my experiences here from the perspective of one who suffered. More broadly speaking, however, suffering presents a task to be done. That task is the task of lifting and mourning. If my experiences gave me anything they really only gave me this: a well of empathy and love on which to draw and offer others in their own brokenness and weary despair; a willing (if still imperfect) haven for the downtrodden.”

    Thank you for stating so clearly what all of us must learn to do, regardless of the trauma or pain that caused the “brokenness.” Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your spiritual journey. I hope that as I continue my transformation from the girl/young woman who was filled with nails, to a woman who accepts the healed over scars of the body that died coming to the new person she is becoming, while refusing to let them define who I am becoming. I hope I am half as successful as you at becoming a Phoenix, rising from the ashes, and that I will find words when that transformation is closer to completion, that will inspire others, as you words have inspired me.

    Thank you!

  19. Absolutely incredible. Thank you so much.

  20. Jacob, if there exists a finer personal essay on atonement I’ve never seen it. Curiously, that word, “atonement,” appears in none of the 5 parts of your work. Just as in any perfect riddle, the solution is precisely that which remains unspoken.

    At-one-ment.

    Atonement is the gospel, the answer to this riddle, yes, but not the resolution. The fuel and the challenge. The sacred ampersand.

  21. Russell, your comment reminds me of Paul Tillich’s assertion in The Courage to Be: “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.”

  22. Well done. Can’t say much else!

  23. Jacob, this series was both unsettling and yet ultimately comforting. Your story is helping me to understand just a little more, about Christ’s ability to “Take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people….that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people…” (Alma 7:11-13). That much of the comfort and succor offered com es through us, is humbling. Thank you. for sharing such a personal and painful journey.

  24. Kim S Colton says:

    After lurking here for at least eight years, Jacob persuades me finally to step from silence to presence. As a result of this essay, today I want to mourn, comfort, lift, and stand more fully with this community of believers. I want to acknowledge the comfort you have offered me through my living of the middle. Thank you. And, as a result of this essay, I have felt again the abiding, comforting, loving, and blessing presence of God. I want to turn again toward that Presence.

  25. Jacob, I’ve read with deep emotion and rapt interest this story you’ve shared with us. While I am yet unmarried and childless, the lessons you’ve learned and taught us here resonate with me in other ways, because I too have suffered, if not in the same all-encompassing and soul-crushing way described in this account, and I too have wondered about God’s all-too-audible silence.

    So, I wonder, though, if I’ve misread you slightly, because it seemed to me like the end of your account short-circuited one of the lessons I thought I picked out. You write (and this is extremely interesting to me and I need to think about it more) that the justification of (perhaps some kind of) suffering is ultimately its betrayal; that “there is unspeakable suffering that simply, worlds without end, cannot be justified with reasons–it is unspeakable.” However, at the end of the article, you write convincingly of the empathy and love, the silent communion, that you have learned to offer your fellow sufferers, and frame it as a lesson your experiences have taught you — a reason, in other words, for your suffering. I wonder if you can help me reconcile these two thoughts, or help me read your account more as you wrote it to be read. (Please don’t think I’m being critical — as I said earlier, this idea is extremely interesting, and I’m seeking only to understand.)

    Thanks, as others have said, for sharing this vivid, personal, visceral experience with us.

  26. First, thank you. This series was beautiful. And second, while reading each installment, I was constantly reminded of Shusaku Endo’s book ‘Silence.’ Have you ever read this, or any of Endo’s other works, Jacob?

  27. Great.

  28. RE #26 — I wonder if I would better to read his essay as saying that while suffering can have potential positive side effects like learning to comfort others who are suffering, but its not the ultimate end all explanation of why we suffer, and by not knowing that we are truly able to succor one another. At least that’s how I understood it.

  29. I am not able to understand this series very well. I think I am just a bit spiritually immature to truly understand what you are explaining in such an eloquent manner. A large part of me hopes to never understand this… I dont think I could hold my breathe long enough to swim to the depths you are at. but from what I read neither could you. and somewhere along the way down you had no more air in your lungs and started inhaling the water, fighting and convulsing for a good part of the time. till you stopped fighting and simply submitted to the state you have been consigned to. I dont think you gave in to it, but you definitely stopped flailing for the surface. I am not sure from what I have read that this part in the series should be called the ascent. seems more like a leveling off. you have reached the bottom of the basin and are there helping others as they descend or comforting those that are there with you. I am not sure that we are to truly ascend in this life. My grandmother would always say that whatever it was you are dealing with it is probably not the worst thing that is going to happen to you. what a depressing thought huh. but probably truer than i like to admit. At some point in the future another horrible event will occur and you will probably be sent to a lower basin. It happens to us all. The only difference I can see between one person and the other is whether they are grasping for the surface or submitting to the current. I dont know. Haven’t experienced any thing like what you have described so its all very foreign to me. I will definitely refer back to these as I begin my descent and run out of air. Beautifully written.

  30. So many thoughts. I want to share this with my family, including my youngest son. This is an essay series which moves the mind to a new shelf, presents a new vista, changes things. Thank you, Jacob.

  31. Thank you for this. I’d love to sit with you for a day, and quietly watch the sun come up, slowly crawl over our heads, and back down into the earth, while clouds, birds, and insects whirl around us and we hurtle through the vacuum of space around the core of our galaxy, itself an island of faint lights in an immeasurably cold, expansive, and oddly nurturing abyss.

  32. I am so sorry for your years of hell. I can understand your despair. My heart went out to you. From your comments your life has healed and it seems you have an interesting and nicely expanding future. So pardon me while I give you my formula for happiness even if it is a bit Polly Anna-ish.

    I have a dictum by which I live: If I am not happy, I change something. This can generally work to increase happiness if applied intelligently, except in the case of clinical depression or some other mental illnesses. You may not be able to change the physical circumstances, but often just the approach.

    I worked out this paradigm because I firmly believe that “man is that he might have joy.” I believe God meant it in the here and now, not just the eternities.

    I also believe that God is a Darwinist and will kill people for going through stop signs. In true Buddhist fashion, I expect nothing from God, so when something good happens I am always surprised. Bad will happen anyway. “What do you expect? It is God!”

    The joy principle does not particularly work when being hacked to death with a machete, however.

    God killed my beloved spouse but provided another beloved spouse. Should I be pleased or angry? All of us will have our years of hell. What did you expect? This sounds harsh, but in application it tends to ameliorate misery and point towards happiness.

  33. You’re right, that is a bit Pollyanna-ish.

  34. Thank you, Jacob.

  35. Thank you everyone for your responses, particularly those of you who shared your own stories. Sharing stories like these is always a risk. The risk is that we open our inner selves to others and we might be misunderstood or rejected. The other side of the risk is what has happened here, that it becomes possible to genuinely love and be loved, to establish bonds with those whom we had previously never had contact. I wish I could respond to all of you, in turn, but I’ll say a few things here.

    Kathryn #15, thank you. Yes, the connection with that paper and all of these thoughts is explicit. Thank you for your writings. They were the impetus for opening these dark places that I had never directly explored and contemplated.

    sbagleysd #26: This is a good point, and one I could have been clearer about. I’m not sure I would describe empathy and silent communion as themselves reasons for suffering. Results, sometimes, of painful experiences but not necessarily reasons for those experiences, and certainly not reasons I could give others for their suffering. I think we are warranted in coming to our own conclusions for why we ourselves suffered. In many cases there will be convincing reasons and it often is the case that suffering provides experience not otherwise gained and ends up being beneficial in some way. But this is not a *justifying reason* for suffering; it is a consequence that is not universal and not consistent– universality and consistency being some of the criteria for what can constitute reason. All Joseph’s experiences would be for his experience and good. But not necessarily the Burmese child sold into sex slavery and then tortured to death. And simply appealing to eschatology–that in the end the child would be healed through the atonement or all those things would be made up to her, etc. is simply not an adequate response because it cannot account for the only stage of existence that needs to be accounted for–this life, the here and now. Difficult, then, to provide reasons for a whole host of terrible human experiences.

    Carey #29: Yes. Your sum up of what I just said is excellent.

    Kim S. Colton, #25: I hope we’ll hear more from you in the future. Welcome home.

  36. “Pollyanna-ish” is a pollyanna-ish description of that comment, RW.

  37. Michelle Glauser says:

    I can’t help but feel like 1. You (Jacob) can in some way relate to my own experiences, even if from an outside perspective they don’t look so physically bad as struggling to keep up school, job, and family life, and 2. I’m jealous of your conclusion. Maybe I’ve yet to reach that point. I have more understanding of people and suffering than I used to, but I have in no way felt like my soul has communed, and I often really was quite alone. I think you were, too. You had Amanda by your side and yet that was no comfort. I keep intermittently bashing my head against a wall, hoping for some kind of comfort, something, or anything . . . for nothing. In a way, I feel like the slowly turning to other people for help has been because I couldn’t get anything from my HF, and not that their help has been His answer. And the wrong people will give the obvious and unhelpful Mormon answer, “Just keep going, humble yourself, and have faith.” Besides the wash of social culture and this desire to be able to somehow reconcile my experiences and what I’ve been taught about God, it’s hard to continue such an unrewarding and difficult life. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but I often think, “Life really is suffering.” Inevitably I come to the question, “How come I know people who really haven’t suffered ‘since that one time in college’? What is my problem? Maybe if I were a little more blind I could ignore the problems and be happy.”

    I recently finished the Old Testament for the first time completely and directed my questions to a member I know who has a lot of knowledge of Judaism. I was surprised by his answers; they indicated to me that the God I always thought existed doesn’t really exist and I need to change my views. But that God seems not to care about the individual, and I don’t want that. So do I need to become one with the whole so that God’s laws apply to me, or do I let Him go and hope for some individual sanity in this life?

    Nevertheless, there is something, perhaps comfort, in your words. Sometimes knowing that others have been through that profound suffering is comforting, sometimes not. I’m sure you put a lot of time and effort into writing these five parts and I think they are something I will be coming back to often.

    I’m sorry to write so much. I’ll be writing an even longer post on my own blog eventually, I believe.

  38. Jacob,

    Thank you for giving voice to something that I have thought I understood after my wife and I endured an extremely soul and heart wrenching experience early in our marriage. Ours was not the birth but the loss of our first child and the excruciating absurdities that led up to that loss as well as the aftermath. The depths of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and isolation simply numbed the mind and left us both wondering whether God truly listened and would respond. The loss destroyed my wife and I found myself often helpless to lift her up and praying that God would just do something about it. Just please make her whole again. But there is no going back. She can never be that innocent mother who believed that everything is rosy pink and happy babbling babies. I have known what it is to be utterly helpless to resolve the pain of someone I loved and cherished and to feel that God did not care enough to answer my requests. And to watch this suffering continue for months without end. The loss is real and palpable and while time and experience have offered perspective, the reality is that we are different people, different parents, different friends, different husband and wife because of what happened. Who we were died and we are renewed through the fires of tribulation. I want to say that I am a better and more compassionate man, father, servant, husband, as a result of how these events impacted my life. I hope that is true. My relationship with God and the Savior have changed and become a more fundamental part of who I am – that much I know to be true.

    This is perhaps not directly what he was referencing when Joseph described himself as a rough stone rolling whose polishing comes from contact with something else that knocks the sharp corners off but I empathize with the sentiment that it feels like all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there.

    Personally, I eventually found, that suffering and loss and pain at times may have no reason. They just are. They exist as part of our mortal and it seems immortal experiences if we are, as you say, to recognize that God communes with us and weeps over/with us but sometimes cannot or will not respond, let alone intervene. As logical beings we want everything to be readily categorized and explainable. And so we attempt to attach a meaning or a lesson that can be gleaned from our triumphs and our tragedies. But those lessons may seem trite when held up against the enormity of pain that exists in the lives of God’s children.

    I love how Moroni describes our calling as Saints, that we are called to speak with one another concerning the welfare of our souls. We are the hands that lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees. We are the eyes called to see and the feet to respond to the needs of those around us. God can and will enlighten us if we are responsive to his call to recognize the personal crucibles those around us are enduring.

    So thank you Jacob for helping add nuances to my own experiences that I had not previously considered. There is much to reflect on in your words.

  39. Alain,
    Beautiful comment, so much truth there. I’m sorry for your pain.

  40. RW: I have a dictum by which I live: If I am not happy, I change something. This can generally work to increase happiness if applied intelligently, except in the case of clinical depression or some other mental illnesses. You may not be able to change the physical circumstances, but often just the approach.

    I think this response misses what, to me, stands as the central point of Jacob’s entire story. You and I thank God, every single week, that Jesus didn’t stand up and walk away from the Garden as he prayed for the bitter cup to be taken from him. That might have made for a comfortable change, let’s try this atonement thing from a different approach. shall we? But we thank God that he didn’t stop the gathering storm around him and leap down from the cross unscathed even as he wondered why his Father had forsaken him at his hour of death.

    No. And it was the fact that Jesus refused to make such little changes that made his life so significant and far-reaching. And by refusing to make such changes he managed, in my view, to change everything.

  41. georgebhandley says:

    I finally caught up on these posts and read them this morning. Your honesty is heroic and your insights invaluable. Keep writing. That’s clearly your calling.

  42. Very, very nice, Jacob — thank you for sharing this.

    From now on, whenever I hear the phrase “still, small voice,” I will think of the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV) that you have so poignantly described, and the way your conclusion seems to in fact collapse (and hence atone for) the distance between these two translational choices….

  43. Mercy, everyone! My wife died after a year of hell. There was no comfort and God did not come and sooth our souls with the knowledge that everything would be OK, and that we were loved. He did not show up at all as far as we could perceive. And maybe I will die after a year of hell. But, unless I am called to the cross, I will not volunteer. I think it is a gross distortion of life to volunteer for unnecessary pain. We do not throw ourselves and our children to the lions to prove our faith. If it can be fixed, it should. I have this simple formula for reducing the pain and increasing the joy of life.

    BHodges, of course we sacrifice when necessary. If called to the cross, would I not ask for the cup to be removed? Even Christ pleaded with his father. Did I not plead for the life of my beloved wife?

    Feedback mechanisms are all-important for controlling virtually everything. Delicate feedback mechanisms control our bodies, the endocrine systems, the balances of chemicals in the brain, etc. Feedback is accomplished by a measurement and comparison to a reference. The difference is amplified and applied to the system to bring it back into regulation.

    Should we not use the powerful concepts of feedback to regulate our lives? I simply stated that we use joy as a reference by which to measure our existence. If our lives are not consistent with the way we want to live them, then correction is necessary. It is then consistent to change something to bring our lives back into regulation. What I advocated is the regular and consistent comparison of the way we live with an eternal standard and doing the corrections as soon as possible with as little effort as necessary.

    I guess if you want to ignore the signals and continue in difficulty, you certainly have the choice. But for me and the people I love, I want to correct my path as quickly as possible so that the life we live is as full of joy, as God recommended, as possible. It is a source of hope that things can be fixed. This is not a criticism of the OP, but the OP reminded me of this hard-won bit of knowledge, learned in painful and difficult circumstances.

    The feedback mechanisms allow you to see who you are and where you belong. It is very important.

    … the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.

    Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3

  44. Jacob, I’m so glad it didn’t end ‘And we lived happily ever after’. It was raw truthfulness from beginning to end, yet so hopeful and spoken as a true disciple of Christ. Thank you!

    Somehow this series needs to be available to people outside of this blog. Have you considered publishing it in some form? Truly…

  45. This post literally brought me to tears. I feel that I can empathize with you although I’m incapable of such beautiful and articulate writing. I’m still a bit speechless. Thank you.

  46. Stunning essay. Thank you for sharing this.

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