Job did. Jesus did, too. Sooner or later, we all do.
Life pushes us to the brink and we're left hanging over the cliff with one hand grasping a clump of grass and looking down at the abyss. Despair clutches our throat and what's left of our heart cries out to a silent God. Our only comfort is the words of Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid: "Don't worry. The fall will kill you."
It happened to me last week. It had to do with my wife and Alzheimer's and poop -- here, there and everywhere. I didn't like cleaning it up, and when Vickie expressed her frustration by again resisting my help, I blurted out, "What's the matter with you? I'm trying to help you!" And when the poop on her bare feet spread into other rooms like vandals, I yelled, "You're killing me!"
I wiped my hands on my pants, hugged Vickie, and said, "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that." I knew my anger was awful and the weight of anguish made me woozy so I hugged her some more to squeeze the fear out of both of us.
After I bathed us both with a hand-held shower spray like circus elephants, I wrapped Vickie in her friendliest PJs, placed her in the embrace of the recliner in the family room, and turned on "Ellen" who was talking like an adult to Sophia Grace and Rosie. I went upstairs and closed the door of our bedroom. I tried to take three deep Andrew Weil breaths, in and out, in and out, but blew up on the second exhale. "God," I yelled, 'you're an ---hole! An ---hole! You know that?!" I grrrrd fiercely.
I suppose my scream was a projection of my own guilt, but so what, it got the poison out. And I knew it wasn't blasphemy because the god I swore at wasn't God. It wasn't the all-loving, all-active, everywhere, benevolent Wisdom I needed more than ever, but the god of my childhood who punishes us as part of his curriculum, who never gives us more pain than we can handle, who allows us to be eaten by lions so we can prove our faith, and who takes babies away from their mothers so they can be happier with him in heaven. That guy. He tries to kill us no matter how well we grow in wisdom, age and grace. Interviewer James Lipton asked Robert DeNiro what he'd like to hear God say to him when he entered the pearly gates. Jimmy the Gent from "Goodfellas" scowled: "Him? He's got a lot to answer for."
A friend of mine, Vinita Hampton Wright, posted this on her Facebook the other day: "What I love about my life today: I did not awaken in despair, which seems to happen a lot lately. Got up, showered, prayed, walked the dog, took the train, bought a bagel and coffee, and now I'm sitting here at work, and I do not feel that everything is coming to an end. If you have never felt this way, try not to judge me, and be grateful that this is not part of your natural makeup."
What happened to Vickie happens to me, happens to Vinita, and happens to everyone in one form or another at one time or another. St. Augustine said, "God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering." Vinita's friends commented:
"Vinita, I've been feeling that way all day today. Hopefully tomorrow will be better."
"Been there, feeling a bit that way today, so no judgment."
"For several months while living in San Francisco I felt like the whole world was conspiring against me: buildings, trees, people. It was a rough time in my life."
"Been there. Done that. We all have. Thanks for posting this."
"Thank you for articulating this, Vinita. I often wake up feeling such despair, and I too cherish the days that feel steady, hopeful, normal. I hope your work is rich and good today."
People will always be kind. That is good to know.
I have also found it good to know that a prayer of surrender to the real God -- the love who knows what we need before we do -- is the fastest antidote to despair. Its core is, "Thy will be done. Thine, not mine."
The truth is, God doesn't want to hurt us! His will for us is good, pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2). "Thy will be done, not mine" is a powerful prayer of petition because it puts the control where it belongs, in the hands of omnipotent love. It is a prayer of humility that brings surprises. Just as the eye has not seen the beauty that God has in store for us in heaven, we can't imagine the ways our problems will be solved on earth or, most likely, simply dissolve in our prayer of surrender.
I can't tell you how many times I have screamed out in my car over the years about the pain that comes from what I want or don't want to happen, what I think should or shouldn't be: "God, I can't take this anymore. It's killing me. Take this problem away. I give it to you. I place it on the altar of your love. I can't figure it out or change it or make it go away. I don't want to think about it anymore. I give up. I give it all to you. Your will be done. Yours is way better for me than mine. I'm done, Lord. Finished. It's yours. Yours. Thank you."
I am learning it's not the poop but making judgments about it that drives us mad. Job found peace only when he stopped obsessing and comparing his life with others. He let go and let god be God. I sometimes try to escape my life by fantasizing a different one in which I am the star and can do whatever I want without consequences and nothing bad ever happens to me. That always brings me down. Poop happens. None of us gets out of this thing without trouble. Jesus cried to his Father from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But he forgave the thief and the soldiers with their spears and whips and his garments. He let it go. His last words: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is finished."
The prayer of surrender reconciles, brings rest: It stops us from shuffling guilt and fear and anger thoughts in our mind like a stacked deck of cards. Handing our worries over to the real God who doesn't play games brings closure, lets us get on with our life (till the next problem when we have to do it all over again), and now and then have a laugh at the folly of being human. There's no other way. Try it.
[Michael Leach is the shepherd of NCR's Soul Seeing column and editor at large of Orbis Books.]
It's OK to despair and swear at God
Job did. Jesus did, too. Sooner or later, we all do.