At 14, I read the entire Bible, front to back. When I attended sleepovers, other kids brought plastic clamshells of eye shadow or bottles of nail polish, clattering in their backpacks like marbles. I brought my leather-bound Bible. I was always the last to fall asleep. As my friends dropped off into unconsciousness and heavy snores (it was always the girls you least expected who snored the loudest), I unzipped my bag and pulled out the Bible, heavy and reassuring on my lap, as I listened to the creaks and groans of a strange house with its unfamiliar ghosts.
The incantatory rhythms of the King James Bible comforted me, mostly. So many of the collected works of God Almighty feature reassuring promises of order and justice and everything being right with the world. The message: just trust, just have faith, and everything will turn out just fine. You’ll get your happy ending. But then I came to the Book of Job, and I had some questions.
Like most children, I’d been raised on the just-world hypothesis, a bias that leaves us believing all events are caused by our individual actions. Think of it as total and complete faith that God is good, that everything happens for a reason, and that we all get what we deserve.
Except all a perceptive child has to do is look around to know it isn’t true. Abused children know this best of all, deep in the aching marrow of our bones. Some of the kindest people in my life were those who had suffered—and went on suffering—the most. Some of the cruelest had excellent health, sterling reputations, wealth, and vast social support networks. Our actions rarely lead to proportionate, fitting reactions (or results). And when they do, it turns out to be an awful lot of luck: the luck of genetics, of birth, of who we know, of what street we drove down on a particular day at a particular time.
So Job then.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
In the Book of Job, a good man suffers because God makes him suffer.
There are many interpretations as to why. Perhaps God is testing Job or refining him, or maybe Job is a Christ figure (a dress rehearsal for what God will later do to Christ), or a reminder that God’s purpose is not solely about human happiness. I’m not sure I care. There is just the simple fact that it’s ethically wrong for a supreme being to burn ants with a magnifying glass.
At 14, I was horrified and a little ashamed. This was the god I spoke to? Prayed to? Worshipped? What an asshole.
Job’s God was the spitting image of the neighborhood boys I hated most.
It was the first time I started to think maybe god wasn’t worth my time after all.
Bad things happen to good people because things simply happen. To all of us, good, bad, and in-between.
As a Zen Buddhist, that’s what I believe now. And that belief not only allows me to have compassion for those who suffer, to not presume I know why they’re suffering—it also doesn’t provide an easy target for my rage when everything falls apart.
The just-world hypothesis makes life simple.
But life isn’t simple.
Sometimes, things just happen.
On Christmas Eve, our vet sent us to the nearest animal hospital with our elderly cat, Luna. Her chest had filled with fluid, and if she was to survive, she needed a chest tap. The hospital veterinarians diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and pleural effusion. For two weeks, we did everything we could to keep her going. For two weeks, no one could fit us into their schedule or give us a prognosis. And then she stopped eating. She told us what the vets wouldn’t. She had arrived at the end. Her kidney failure, heart failure, hyperthyroidism all met in the confluence that is death, and we took her to the vet one final time to euthanize her.
Two weeks after that I turned 40.
Two weeks after that my husband and I learned that he had been misdiagnosed. An orthopedist’s reckless dismissal of his severe pain and swelling had endangered his life. One day, his diagnosis was that of a joint injury accompanied by unexplained severe pain and swelling of the leg. The next day he was diagnosed with Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). And the day after that, he was diagnosed with a Pulmonary Embolism (PE) and rushed to the ER where he was hospitalized, medicated, and monitored.
A nurse practitioner saved his life, with curiosity, with doubt. An orthopedist nearly killed him with certainty.
But we still have three to six months to go, months that involve blood thinners and their accompanying risks. Months of tests and specialists and exams and scans to ascertain why so many clots. Months that may mean surgery, fatigue, weakness, and possible long-term symptoms that never resolve. Months while we wait to see if his body will reabsorb the clots, months when his chance of death is still higher than it was before all this happened.
Months of uncertainty.
I’m trying to write all this as clinically, as objectively, as coolly as I can.
I am trying to limit how many people witness my nervous breakdowns.
Here’s the thing. There are resources out there for any one of these things. There are books about coping before and after surgery. There are books about pulmonary embolism. There are books about grieving a beloved pet. There are books about chronic migraines and books about PTSD (two conditions I live with). There are books about facing our mortality and embracing whatever life ends up being, however short or long, however difficult or comfortable. There are books about each one of these things.
I haven’t yet found a book about all of them.
How do I manage chronic migraines when the fear that my husband won’t be alive in the morning prevents me from sleeping? How do I continue grieving Luna’s death when I’m already overwhelmed with selfish fears over what I will do if my husband dies? When does wise vigilance toward a loved one with a life-threatening condition become hypervigilance? How do I savor the moments with him when I worry each might be the last?
I have always told myself there’s only so much a person can cope with.
This turns out not to be true.
We can cope with just about anything. I should’ve known that already, from the many refugees and ex-POWs and human trafficking survivors I once had the honor to serve at a local college.
But we can’t feel everything. The reality is there’s only so much a person can feel. And then things start to break down. The body, the mind. We shut down. We put one foot in front of the other. We dissociate.
Cope, a verb that entered English from the French verb couper. To cut. It is an inherently violent thing. To cope is to cut off everything that is unnecessary. To cut off the head of the snake. To cut off the problem. And sometimes the only thing we can control is our feelings. So they get cut.
I’ve been in this space before. I’ve spent most of my life here. You get through it. And if you’re lucky, you come out the other side. Only then can you look back and feel whatever there wasn’t space to feel in the thick of it.
And thus we survive, numb and raw at the same time, dissociated and pumped up on adrenaline. Until it’s safe to feel again.
The thing about PTSD symptoms is that during a trauma they are not a disorder. In the midst of life-endangering experiences, they are adaptive. In the face of threats to our lives, they help us get through.