Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankfulness and Tragedy

The one theological idea that has had the greatest impact on me over the past few years is that one is not supposed to pray to God “from whom all good things flow” because it implies that there is another God from whom bad things flow. The idea itself is simple enough, but the extensions and implications stagger me: God sends not only good things, but also bad. The same God that gives you life and joy also gives you loss and pain.

Of course, right? Isn’t that the whole deal with monotheism, that “alpha and omega” idea? Granted, but this idea (and I wish I could find the rabbi that taught this, or remember which book I read it in) takes it a step farther. If we want to thank God for the good things in our lives, in this season of giving thanks, we have to thank God for the bad things as well.

That’s not a simple idea; are you able to be grateful for the bad things in your life? And I don’t mean in that “there’s a lesson or hidden upside to it” way, as if there was a pre-emptive karmic cost for the good things in life, or God were a sadistic gym teacher that believes the only way you can truly grow into an adult is if he makes you cry. I mean being truly grateful for the bad parts of life, in and of themselves. I try, but I’m not always sure I’m strong enough.

It’s a slippery slope, to be sure. If you’re not careful, you start sounding like the most out-there of far-out fundamentalists, either abdicating all responsibility for the events in your life to some divine power or becoming a sacred masochist, thanking God for this opportunity to suffer further because you deserve it. So what, then, is the proper middle ground?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been having a lot of Back to the Future/Groundhog Day style fantasies, imagining what I would do differently if I could relive my life with the knowledge I have now. Or what advice I would give to a younger me. The question quickly encounters a frightening time traveler’s dilemma: I’m pretty happy with my life right now, and wouldn’t want to make any major changes. What could safely be changed that would end with me still here, in my current situation, with just some fairly superficial improvements?

Should I have gone to an Ivy League school? My career would definitely have taken a different direction if I had, especially if I retained knowledge of future events. But a different career path means I wouldn’t have wound up at my current job. Without this job I wouldn’t have moved to LA, which means I never meet my wife! How much would I be willing to change my past knowing it would almost certainly mean losing her?

Not much, and when seen from this perspective it becomes easier to be grateful for all the steps in my journey that brought me here, both good and bad. I didn’t enjoy breaking my arm in 4th grade, but that was one of the steps that brought me here. It’s not an experience I would repeat, but it’s one of the things that brought me here. Looking at it that way, I’m glad I broke my arm!

But then you get to the major traumas, the big pains. I look back at some of those and ask myself, would I be willing to endure that again to get to her? That’s where it gets hard, because I honestly don’t know what the answer would be. Would I do the things that led to years of pain and therapy again knowing that She waited on the other side, or would I avoid those moments and risk losing the good things I’ve got?

I don’t know. I wish I did, but it’s not a question I can answer. All I know is I’m grateful I’m here now!

In the time between writing this and posting this, I had another of those moments. One of the soul-wrenching, life-changing, “am I strong enough to deal with this?” moments. Even as it was happening I was wondering, what future joy could possibly be worth this? Will I ever be able to look back and be thankful for any path that included this? On the other hand, it’s only because of skills learned to cope with previous heartbreak that I’m getting through this one relatively intact.

Each pain preparing you for the next, bigger one; is this what it takes to learn gratitude?

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