This coming Sunday is Mother’s day – the first one since my mom passed last July. And this past Monday, I got more ink put onto a tattoo I’ve been getting work on for the past couple months. It will be another two months before it’s complete, as each session is about two hours and it takes it approximately a month to heal in between sessions.
My tattoo is of a large black swan, ornate and beautifully shaded. My mother, as anyone who knew her would tell you, loved birds of all kinds, especially swans. So this tattoo, inspired both by my mother’s love for swans and our shared love for The Great Gatsby, will be a permanent reminder of her love and presence in my life.
I’m writing this on Tuesday, the day after getting the tattoo halfway filled in. And my arm hurts. It’s not like the sharp pain of broken bone, but the deep, dull thud of a burn on its way to healing. I know that it will feel better by the end of the week, and I’ll regain full use of my arm within the next couple of days.
It’s hard and complicated to say something is a “good pain” or a “good hurt.” I have trouble with the idea of pain or hurt being “good” in any moral sense of the term. It flies far too close to “everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan for your suffering” for me to be comfortable with it. I don’t like that theology universally applied – it is insensitive for us to tell other people to embrace their pain and that God “never gives us more than we can handle.” Such sentiments tend to dig the knife in a little deeper to suffering, instead of alleviating it.
But from people who have been there before, who are going through the pain we’ve experienced as marginalized members of the church or as humans going through life? That kind of reassurance, that “it gets better, but you have to go through the pain, not around it”? That helps.
It’s strange to me how Christianity is at once communal and individual. It’s hard to make a universal theology of suffering that’s not also immediately insensitive to members of the church who are in pain. Platitudes about God having a plan extend out of very real theology that our forerunners in the church developed. There is heart there; there is a desire to help.
But such help, when developed out of a desire to be theologically accurate and not pastorally sensitive, becomes useless in the face of suffering. Saying to me “your work will hurt for a short time and beauty will emerge out of this pain” is deeply different from telling me that God “planned” for my mother to die when she did.
Often, representatives of the church don’t quite grasp this difference. This comes from the projection of sameness that happens within the church. We tell ourselves that we’re all equal at the foot of the cross so much that we become convinced that this means we’re all the same. And I get it – it’s a coping mechanism for understanding ourselves if we convince ourselves that everyone is just like us. It helps us deal with this hard project that is simply being human.
But part of the beauty of this human project that we are at once the same and completely different. Everyone goes through these same experiences, but they’re all different at different times and we all handle them differently. I know quite a few people who have lost parents, and we can commiserate with each other. But we also recognize that our experiences and our relationships are so different that we can’t fully grasp or understand each other.
This is why our theology needs to be both God-centered and human-centered. We cannot allow ourselves to grow calloused to the differences of human experience, and we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent about the suffering people experience. We must engage in issues with a mind toward understanding that people are real and that our “love” can just as easily be a slap in the face.
I commented during the blur of a month that was last July that I would not be responsible for my reaction if someone told me God had a plan for me or that everything happens for a reason. During those times, those platitudes become meaningless. That theology may have warrant behind it (which is debatable), but that doesn’t make it loving. It being “right” doesn’t make it loving.
And this, ultimately, is the insurmountable divide between the many who are deeply concerned with theology and the many who are concerned foremost with being loving. There shouldn't be a divide there - but orthodoxy has gone in such a way as to become callous to the marginalized, concerned with preserving power instead of challenging it. And the preservation of earthly power is not what theology is for, just as the act of being present in grief does not mean condemnation or harshness.
We live in a grieving world. Our theology must be sensitive to that reality.