During my second semester, I took a course on literature and theology, and at one of the first few sessions I woke from a daydream to discover that my classmates were eagerly discussing The Odyssey. I panicked, figuring that even though for once I had done the reading, I had done the wrong reading. But when I fiddled in my notebook to check the syllabus, The Odyssey was nowhere to be found. I poked my neighbor at the seminar table, gently, in the rib. “We were supposed to read The Odyssey?”
“Huh?” she said. “What are you talking about?” When I'm not in class, I work as a pediatrician, and I noticed pretty early that though divinity school, like pediatrics, is full of large-hearted, patient people, during intense intellectual discussions my fellow students can get a little testy.
“Why are we talking about The Odyssey?”
“Not The Odyssey,“ she said. “The Odyssey. Leibniz. Bayle. Polkinghorne. Those guys.”
“Oh,” I said, but she could tell I was still confused, so she wrote the word on my notebook, which was blank except for a half-finished doodle of a pony.
“Oh,“ I said, as if I recognized the word. The class discussion moved on without my ever deciphering what exactly they were talking about—everyone lamenting the problem of theodicy without ever saying what it was—so I walked to the library after class to consult the dictionary and discovered that, like anyone who has ever felt afflicted by existence, I was already familiar with the concept, if not the word. It means an attempt to reconcile a God who is thoroughly and supremely good with the undeniable fact of evil in the world. It was as strange and embarrassing as the episode in class had been, to stand there and learn a word I suddenly felt I should have known all my life.
You don't have to have your cookies stolen in kindergarten too many times before you start to perceive that all is not right with the world. My cookies were stolen so often that I learned to offer them before they were demanded; my tormentor was a girl whose name I have long forgotten but whose face, round and sweet and utterly at odds with her dreadful disposition, has remained with me forever. I was raised Catholic, but was at that age more a dreamy little pagan, and it was indicative of my particular brand of religiosity that I prayed to Big Bird and not to Jesus to deliver me from my freckled oppressor. When nothing changed, I continued to believe in Big Bird, but I gave up on the notion that he cared very specifically about what happened to me.
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.
Every parent and child I meet who overcomes or succumbs to illness is challenged to reconcile their fate with their faith in the goodness of the world. They never reason or parse like theologians, and by no means do they all express a faith in any kind of God, but they all find strength and will to wake up every day to a job tremendously more difficult than mine. A child complains one morning at the breakfast table of numbness in one arm, and then collapses from a catastrophic cerebral bleed (or pulls a steaming rice cooker down upon her head, or rides a scooter headfirst into a speeding taxi), and a parent's world suddenly collapses. It's a privilege and a burden to be witness to other people's tragedies, to watch them proceed from stunned disbelief to miserable acknowledgment to stoic acceptance and then beyond to the place I can't quite enter myself, a place in which they are both fully aware of how completely horrible life can be and yet still fully in love with it, possessed of a particular buoyancy of spirit that is somehow heavier than it is light.
I can't say if I believe in the God who knows us and cares for us down to the last hair of our head, and so I don't feel obligated to reconcile such a being with the ugly facts of the chromosomal syndrome trisomy 13, or teenage myelogenous leukemia, but I am pretty sure one need look no further than people's responses to adversity to find evidence that there is something in the world that resists tragedy, and seeks to overturn the evils of seeming fate.
The last and least of my professions, after physician and student, is fiction writer, and I'd like to think that the little tragedy-resisting organ in me is the one that generates stories. They are ghastly, depressing stories for the most part, about ghosts, and zombies, and unhappy angels managing apocalypses, and people attempting to bring the dead back to life, but they are a great comfort to me. I write fiction mostly to try to make sense of my own petty and profound misery, and I fail every time, but every time I come away with a peculiar sort of contentment, as if it was just the trying that mattered. And maybe that's the best answer to the patently ridiculous problem of trying to reconcile all the very visible evil and suffering in the world with the existence of a God who is not actually out to get us: We suffer and we don't give up.
Chris Adrian's second novel, The Children's Hospital, was published by McSweeney's. He is a pediatrician and divinity student in Boston.
From the May 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.