Wickedness and Suffering

Wickedness and Suffering

Does that heading about cover it?  Eugene Ionesco, the brilliant Franco-Romanian playwright, wrote Tueur sans gages [Killer without wages], a play that opens with his characters marveling over the great neighborhood to which they feel fortunate to have been admitted.

Enfin, un beau quartier! they exclaim.  Finally, a beautiful neighborhood!  There’s only one trouble with it.  A mad killer is loose, right in the beautiful neighborhood!  He kills for no reason, unless wanting to kill is itself a reason.

While we’re on the subject of ideal places to live, we heard about an actual such place from our next-door neighbors.  They spend the winter months in a resort community that boasts interesting residents, a wonderful climate and facilities to accommodate every taste.  The manicured lawns are criss-crossed by walkways that run alongside tranquil lagoons.

Enfin, un beau quartier! one would think, no?  Well, not quite.  Last year, a nice young woman who lived around the block was out walking her dog when an alligator poked his snout out of the lagoon, ran across the lawn, grabbed her dog and – when she tried to defend it – grabbed her instead, dragging her down to the lagoon where – as our neighbors put it delicately – “she drowned.”

Sounds like a scene from Ionesco, but it actually happened, though our neighbors didn’t dwell on that one drawback.  Even a beau quartier isn’t perfect, apparently.

In this world of toil and snares, many sorts of unthinkables do occur.   Yesterday I was dutifully making my way through The New York Review of Books, which I do to keep up with what The Beautiful People are reading this week.  Naturally, I came across the obligatory anti-Israel book review.  Abuses perpetuated by settlers and Israeli military against Palestinians were excoriated in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of high heroic righteousness.  Though I’m no expert on the Middle East, I could have easily inserted the omitted parts of the reviewer’s narrative, parts that would have considerably altered his moral arithmetic.  As it reads now, his report invites the verdict that Israel exists without any moral right to continue to do so.  In the run-up to genocide, that’s precisely how the ground gets prepared.

I coulda been A Beautiful Jewish Person too.  Written books that were read and admired and translated everywhere.  Coulda been invited to dinners everywhere.  Including Tehran!  Darn!  Missed my chance!

Feeling fragile, I went downstairs to watch C-Span.  An author I did not know, Helen Zia, was talking about her new book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution.  In a measured way, she described what happened to her own family.  She also called attention to the plight of refugees worldwide.

“No one wants refugees,” she reminded us.  “But people don’t leave their homes, carrying a suitcase, unless they are fleeing for their lives.”

I was reminded of a colleague who was forced to return to his home country, having been unable to renew his green card.  His job loss was a shake-out from Philosophy Department intrigues.  At the time, my mother, herself an immigrant said, shaking her head, “So they have taken America from him!”

For some reason, listening to Helen Zia’s story smoothed the frayed edges of tragic and permanent panic in my Jewish soul.

Suffering is worldwide.

Why that thought should be soothing, I don’t know.  But it was.

As if I were looking down from high above the earth, I tried to picture all its refugees.  On this big, round, blue planet, there are patches of territory with developed economies, degrees of legal protection for citizens, and ways they can realize their aspirations.  And the rest of the human population of the planet wants to get into those patches of territory.  Some come for the benefits and the opportunity to contribute to its flourishing.  Some want the chance to rip it off.  That’s human nature.  The obvious task would be to sort them out: the sheep from the wolves.  Between Fear and Denial, it’s not obvious that this job will get done.

Getting ready for bed, I thought of this vast sea of suffering.  I prayed to see it clear – to be shown its inner features and the size of it — relative to humanity as a whole.  In what world do we live?

These days, my bedtime reading is Why Religion? a book by Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels.  She’s a very interesting woman.  The story she tells is autobiographical, combining extraordinary successes and shocking losses: a bewitching (to judge by his photo) young son and a loved, wonderful husband – the right man for her.  Her son died of the fragile heart condition he had from birth.  In the wake of that loss, her husband, an experienced hiker who knew the trail, fell thousands of feet to his death when a patch of ground on the path gave way unexpectedly.

Pagels describes the world-shattering awfulness of this second grief.

To me as reader, it felt as if her single grief was equal to the whole world’s grief.  So perhaps my prayer — to see and know the world’s grief — was answered.  God must feel each singular grief in the world, for all creatures great and small, as I felt hers, only more so.

Theologians distinguish two types of evil: suffering in nature and wickedness in man.  It came to me that, in the flame-hot core of both —

suffering and malice –

 they feel the same!

Some believers contend that God has a Master Plan that will put all the moral equations in balance, some day and somewhere.

I don’t argue the point.  Down here the equations don’t balance.

It’s all I can do to know

 that God feels it too.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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