See the first post on suffering here.
All this prompted a very long and hard journey I’m still walking where every notion and idea I possessed about God has been torn to shreds to (hopefully) make room for something better. Something more “good,” as he likes to put things. One part of this journey is constantly wrestling with the question of why we suffer. As I’ve been searching for answers, I found something interesting: nobody really has one. Anybody I’ve spoken to or read from who purports having an answer really only some kind of a cop-out (albeit some elaborate ones). This is true from the grasshopper Christians all the way up to the learned theologians. I was really hoping this wasn’t the case, as theology and faith-theory was the first place I turned to for answers.
This didn’t help my case much, as it pushed me further from typical Christian responses. There had to be a reason for suffering, and if God was behind it then I hated him. Although this sounds drastic, when I look back at this last year I couldn’t be more thankful for that reaction. In the larger picture, what that represented was the end of my pursuit of modern Christianity and the beginning of my pursuit of God.
Where I’ve found myself after spending some time wandering these plains is, unfortunately, no closer to an answer. I have learned some things, though, and I’d like to share some of them with you if that’s alright.
1). Suffering is relative
When I returned from my trip (I spent a few weeks in Africa, if you’re just joining us), I went through several rounds of showing people pictures. “Joe, where are their clothes? Do those children not have shoes or clothes?” my grandmother cut in during my first picture showing. It was a group picture and I was in the middle of pointing out who the village elder was, the names of the children, and stories about how rascally one of them was when she piped in with her question. I stopped mid-sentence and looked. Sure enough, there were few complete sets of clothes on-screen, and even fewer covered feet. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten. Suddenly, I experienced my first incident of what I’ve come to call “culture conflict,” with many more incidents to come over time.
We like to normalize. Circumstances, environments, expectations, consequences, results – if encountered consistently over time, we start to consider them normal. Upon encountering something contrary to our normal, we take one of three actions: look up to the something as being more than what you have, look down on the something as being less than what you have, or adjusting your normal to accept what you encountered. Take systems of thought and belief, for instance. One of the wonders of social media is that it gives its users ripe opportunity to encounter thoughts and beliefs different from their own. The response is entirely up to the user, and you see all three (primarily the first two) of the aforementioned actions in abundance.
Honestly, there’s no such thing as normal. You could argue that “normal” exists for every person individually, but once your world expands beyond yourself as you mature past infancy (I worry some people’s still haven’t) “normal” doesn’t exist. Oh, we try to make it exist, though. A raise of hands from all who attended middle school *raises hand*. Those years are wrought with kids trying to figure out what everyone else thinks is “normal” and their attempts to conform their image to those ideas.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s take a look at the rest of the world. While we consider ourselves the most informed culture/generation to date thanks to mass media and the interwebs, Americans are very guilty of not understanding or experiencing other ways of life. Think about it. If you’re in Europe, you’re only a stone’s throw from dozens of other countries and cultures. The United States of America only shares borders with two countries, one from whom we take more immigrants and culture than we could ever give back and another who tends to be so quiet some forget it’s there. Sure, we have plenty examples of different cultures within our borders, but nothing comes close to living like it’s your own. Other cultures know a vast amount about ours, while we know virtually nothing of theirs. During my trip, I was constantly barraged with questions about planes, skyscrapers, New York City, Obama, and American sports teams. In return, I sometimes remembered what city we were in and constantly wished for pizza.
So, getting back to the picture story. In my defense, I didn’t forget because I’m a jerk. “Forgot” isn’t really the best way to describe it, actually. “Learned to look past” is much better. What’s rather ironic is the picture in question didn’t even scratch the surface of the nudity we experienced during our time in South Sudan. I saw more genitalia during those three weeks than I’d care to describe. In fact, I had to cut some pictures from the various presentations I did since naked children tend to make people uncomfortable. As you can imagine, being thrown into the midst of that was #awkward to the max. Going back to the three reactions to occurrences not within our “normal,” I very much started with the second. I looked down on the Toposa for having less than I, and I felt sorry for them. I, like so many good-hearted men and women back in the States, wished I could just give them all the clothes in the world so they could be happy, because they obviously couldn’t be.
What I didn’t expect was how the Toposa approached their “lack”. They were perfectly happy. It took all of two days to realize they didn’t really need clothes. Africa is a hot place, friends. If you were born in that climate and had become accustomed to the unrelenting heat and sun, would clothing not make you even hotter? Ergo, most Toposa choose to forgo any form of clothing. See, that was normal to them. Whereas my normal, as defined by my experiences and culture, stated that clothing is one of the most basic needs of humanity and if you were going without then you were in a really awful situation. Culture conflict at its finest. I became used to their lack of garment, eventually opting for the third of the aforementioned three responses: while I wasn’t going to come home and walk through the streets naked, I accepted their practices as perfectly logical and as equally acceptable as mine. Because my way wasn’t the only way. In fact, my way wasn’t the best way. My Western, learned, cultured way wasn’t the best. Let that set in for a second. [Side note: some time after I got used to the nakedness, I learned most everyone owned at least one set of clothes. They just didn’t have reason to wear them.]
So what am I getting at? Suffering is relative. Any perceived suffering that you aren’t experiencing yourself passes through a lot of lenses before it actually reaches you, and some of those lenses may be distorting the picture. My grandmother looked at a picture and saw nakedness. Thanks to my time spent with the people in the picture I saw names, personalities, and memories. She saw need. I saw fullness. Now, I love my grandmother to death, and I myself have reacted the same way to so many pictures just like you have. We look at other people through the glasses of our “normal” and only see the differences. Sometimes, those differences lead us to perceive suffering. But you can’t get an accurate picture wearing those glasses. It’s only when you take those glasses off (or better yet, try to look through someone else’s) that you see the world for what it truly is.
Those kids didn’t need clothes. They needed love. They didn’t need water, the had their pick of wells in the area. They needed personal investment. The greatest suffering I saw from my limited time with the Toposa was the suffering inflicted by the witchcraft and wars. I walked into villages where you could feel the spiritual darkness in the air like humidity. I saw people wearing beads and trinkets on their bodies, hoping they would protect their families from famine and war (a practice I came to realize isn’t too different from what we call legalism here). I heard bloody stories of death and destruction from warring tribes and villages.
Now, I want to be perfectly clear. I spent three weeks in a very tiny portion of a region with a very select people group. There is a definite need for clothing, shoes, and water all throughout the land of Africa. The point of this post is not to get you to stop giving to organizations that supply those necessities to those who need them. If you are doing that, bless you, and please keep blessing others. I had the privilege of meeting people wearing the fruits of your giving in the form of shoes, and they were thankful beyond expression. My goal in writing this is to address a mindset – the idea that normal exists and exists only for you. You can’t really know someone until you make an effort to stand in their shoes. I hope that you now have substantial reason to try to remove those glasses tinted with the color of you, because it is only without them that you’ll be able to truly behold the wonder, beauty, and great need of the world we live in.
Part 3 to come soon.