The Hardest Question
The Value of Perseverance
As I became an older child and then a teenager, and dogs died and family members died and did not return to life no matter how hard I prayed to alter the fact of their death, I reconciled miserable reality with faith in an all-powerful and entirely benevolent God by telling myself that it wasn't that God didn't care to intervene, or didn't have the power to—my grief was just too particular to attract his attention. And as I grew still older and began to notice that we are accompanied throughout history by all sorts of unspeakable suffering, I amended this view, too, telling myself that the sum of these miserable parts must add up to something I could never apprehend while alive, and that although the fact of evil in the world might speak against God's scrutability, it said nothing about his existence or beneficence. But the older I became, and the more unhappy a place the world revealed itself to be, the more difficult it became to accept the idea of a personally invested, personally loving God.
Most days it's not the most pressing question in the world—how God can be good and allow terrible things to occur. It's when something really bad happens to you, or collective cataclysm descends, or some really wretched piece of news falls out of the television or slithers from the papers that this question that has vexed generations becomes all of a sudden quite present and personal. I would venture to guess that there are certain obsessive sorts of personalities who dwell on it even on sunny days and during Disney ice shows (maybe even especially during Disney ice shows), but for people with certain jobs—theologian, divinity student, vice detective, physician—it becomes a professional hazard. By the time I got to residency, I understood that I needed to come up with an answer to the question people kept asking when I told them I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist: “How can you stand to work in a field where you see such terrible things?”
I did see terrible things, but in fact it was those terrible things that seemed to enable me to get up and go back to work every day. If the parents and children who were actually suffering with the illnesses could be as gracious as I discovered them to be, the very least I could do was get myself back to the hospital to be with them as they labored through the process of getting well or dying. Sometimes it seemed that the failure of drugs or technology reduced the practice of medicine to a ministry of accompaniment. I say reduced, but you could argue that it's an elevation of our practice as physicians. I came to divinity school largely because I thought the experience and education would make me better able to accompany patients into their adversity, and I think I'm in the right place for that. But it turns out that I have already learned things as a doctor that make me if not a smarter divinity student, at least a less agitated one.