Questions around suffering and pain are stock in trade for me as a writer. I know that I can’t stand most Christian justifications (i.e., bullshit) for why terrible things happen. I know that even well-thought-out theological arguments around how God can be all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow great suffering still fall far short for me. I believe that great good can come out of suffering, but I don’t believe that God either orchestrates or even actively allows specific instances of suffering for some greater good or plan.
I know that I am a Christian because of the cross, because God—miraculously, unbelievably—knows how it feels to despair and be forsaken. And I am a Christian because of Easter; the resurrection makes real and tangible the idea that light will always overcome darkness, that love is always more powerful than death.
Beyond all that I know and believe is much that I don’t understand. I don’t have a grand theory of why and how a loving, all-powerful God created a world that embodies so much pain. It is much easier to propose grand theories of why and how a loving, all-powerful God created a world that embodies so much beauty and love.
I think there may be some wisdom hiding in those last two sentences, about where our attention ultimately belongs—on the good, the beautiful, the lovely and loving. On abundant daily grace rather than what looks like its absence.
Even so, that still doesn’t explain where the hand of God is when my little girl breaks her legs for no good reason or children of loving parents are orphaned or young men with vague notions about opposing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan decide to amputate a bunch of runner’s legs with a couple of bombs.
But now I’m pondering some new ideas (for me, anyway…probably not new for theologians who discuss theodicy for a living). I just read Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life. It is the story of Ursula Todd, born one snowy February night in 1910 to an upper-class English family living outside London. The novel’s premise is that Ursula is born again and again, and dies again and again, in different ways and at different times. She dies immediately at birth because of the cord around her neck, she drowns as a four-year-old, she falls out an attic window, she succumbs to the 1918 flu epidemic, she dies several times in the same bombing raid during the London blitz, under slightly different circumstances each time.
Ursula is not reincarnated in the traditional sense. She isn’t born again in a future time, in different circumstances. Rather, she always returns to that snowy February night to be born again into the same house and family. In each life, she meets mostly the same cast of characters, with a few notable exceptions.
The mechanisms of how this works go unexplained, but explanations aren’t necessary. Essentially, the novel explores the many directions our lives can go in, and how one’s destiny is determined and altered along the way by circumstances—some profound, some quotidian, some obvious, some subtle. Ursula’s story brings to vivid life the question that all of us ask of our lives now and then: What if….?
Ursula obtains a gradual understanding of her unusual circumstances, as frequent deja vu and evocative dreams lead her to a stronger and stronger sense, through her various lifetimes, that she has some power to control the future because she has seen it, albeit in various iterations. [Sort-of spoiler alert: The information I'm about to share is available in many online reviews of Life After Life, and I'm not offering many details. Nonetheless, I am about to reveal an important plot point.] A crucial question becomes whether Ursula will use her knowledge to kill Hitler before he can destroy Europe and draw the world into war. Ultimately, she decides that she has another ultimate mission—one with less global impact than killing Hitler, but that saves her own family.
Life After Life left me with many unanswered questions about Ursula’s story, including why she decided how to use her unusual power of foresight as she did. And it left me contemplating those old and difficult questions about suffering.
Some of Ursula’s lives are happier than others. Some of her deaths are more tragic than others. Even before she truly understands what is happening to her, she is frequently overcome by terror and foreboding that something terrible is about to happen, even if she doesn’t know what and doesn’t yet understand that her foresight stems from having been in this moment of time before. She takes action in these cases, without understanding why, and her actions do indeed prevent some terrible things from happening—sometimes her own death, sometimes the death or great suffering of others.
Yet, none of Ursula’s lives are free from suffering. In every life, she mourns the death of people she loves. In almost every life in which she survives to adulthood, she also survives the terror, deprivation, and violence of World War II. In every life, her family copes with the strained relationships, misunderstandings, and hurts (both petty and far from it) that mark all families.
In every one of Ursula’s lives, people suffer and people die tragically. The circumstances of death and suffering change from life to life, but that they exist never changes.
Reading Life After Life makes me wonder if we overthink the question of why people suffer when God is all-loving and all-powerful. (Most of the characters in Life After Life do not have any strong religious belief. Questions about God are largely irrelevant, though questions about reincarnation, the afterlife, and destiny are woven throughout.) In pondering this novel, I’m left with a simple and obvious notion: Suffering and pain are always part of life. Beauty and love are also always part of life. Our choices, both purposeful and accidental, cannot change those facts. But they can alter the balance. Some of Ursula’s lives are sadder and more desperate than others. The sadness and desperation can be attributed partly to chance, but also to how she chooses to respond to her circumstances and whether she chooses to be passive or active when faced with danger or outright evil.
The most important question, perhaps, isn’t why suffering and pain exist. Perhaps the most important question is how can we, in this world where suffering and pain coexist with beauty and love, live in a way to tip the balance toward the good?
This question addresses how things are rather than delving into why they are the way they are. It doesn’t make for particularly deep theological or philosophical discourse. It doesn’t answer the anguished “Why?” that so naturally pours out of our hurting hearts. But as a guiding principle for how to live, I don’t think we can do much better.