Tragedy, Choice, Freedom and God.
- May 2, 2018
In one scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, a waiter asks what appears to be a middle-aged, Midwestern couple who have wandered into a restaurant that serves up topics of conversation whether the couple would like to discuss philosophy. The polite Midwestern couple agree and begin their discussion. When they find the discussion unsatisfactory, they call the waiter who explains the concept behind philosophy and in connection with one subject area, the meaning of life, the waiter asks, “Have you ever wondered what it’s all about?” The Midwestern gentlemen simple says, in comedic fashion, of course, “Nope.”
It is not unusual that most people do not ponder “the meaning of life.” We go about our daily regimen focused on the “here and now” and simply cannot concern ourselves with such lofty issues. However, to those who have suffered a tragic loss, such as the loss of child, it is inevitable that we will ponder this question as making sense of the situation becomes something we yearn for. This piece will be a collection of my thoughts one year and one-half out after the loss of my daughter. These views are, of course, my own. You may agree to disagree. The focus of this writing will be strongly influenced by my underlying belief in God. I do not wish to offend anyone by writing on this topic as the Mary Elise Millus Foundation is not religious based. Depression effects all races, creeds, and colors. It effects highly-religious people, agnostics and atheists. However, I cannot separate my thoughts from my underlying beliefs. I note that as you read this piece you may see, like above, references to lines from films you may have seen. This is not in any way to trivialize what I am saying. I have found that even in fiction, there is truth.
Let me start this way . . . a young girl, in her twenties, is walking east to west on 51st Street. She is looking at her phone and has earbuds in her ears and, based upon her gait, distance and speed she will arrive at the intersection of 51st Street and Third Avenue in 5.7 seconds. At the same time, a driver is driving south to north on Third Avenue. He is inattentive and in an obvious hurry. He is jumping lights and driving at an excessive rate of speed. In 5.7 seconds he will reach the intersection of 51st Street and Third Avenue. Also added to this scenario is the fact that a driver has illegally double-parked his car at the southeastern corner of 51st Street and Third Avenue. All things remaining equal, in 5.7 seconds this young girl’s life will end. The car will make contact with her in excess of 30 miles per hour, and she will not survive.
At the funeral home everyone is grieving. People cannot make sense of this senseless tragedy. Upfront near her casket the family is in shock. Conversations can be overheard between the girl’s mother and father to other mourners saying such things as “how could God let this happen” and “we are good people and have done right by everyone, we are God fearing and avid churchgoers, why is this happening to us?” In the back of the room another family member, believing she is providing solace to others and believing that she has an understanding in the face of this tragedy, says to another mourner “it was her time” or “it was God’s will.”
First, I want to address the comment “it was her time.” The comment implies that we are destined to meet our end at a certain time and place and that nothing will change that fact. In some ways, such a statement is consoling because if it is already written in the stars that our earthly life will end at a certain time, who are we to question such a thing. In the end, as we are powerless to prevent it, we should learn to accept it. Let’s put that theory to the test. Going back to the scenario discussed above, assume for a moment that the girl walking east to west on 51st Street walks into another pedestrian. Realizing that her use of the phone and earbuds is causing her to walk in a distracted manner, she puts the phone away and the earbuds in her pocket. Thus, when she reaches the intersection of 51st Street and Third Avenue in 5.7 seconds, she is aware of her surroundings. As a result, is simply sideswiped by the car resulting in injury, but not her death. Next, let’s consider the double-parked driver. If that driver suddenly realized that what he was doing was wrong, and decided to pullout and enter traffic at Third Avenue, when that girl reached the intersection, she was able to see clearly, even if she was distracted and, was able to avoid the speeding driver. Thus, avoiding any injury whatsoever. And, what of the driver? What if that driver came to the conclusion, through an epiphany, that his driving was dangerous and could cause harm to someone and between 50th and 51st Streets he decided to slow down. Thus, he would not reach the intersection in 5.7 seconds and the girl would step into the intersection and would suffer no harm whatever. You can take these variables and begin to expand on them. What if the driver, driving erratically as he approached 50th Street was struck by another car? He would never reach that intersection and the girl would be safe. What if someone pulled-out on the eastern side of Third Avenue in front of that driver preventing him from continuing his high rate of speed as he hit the brakes? Again, this young lady’s life would go on.
The point of this is that choice plays a role in our ultimate outcome. I do not believe we are predestined to perish at any one point in time. The choice of the girl walking down the street, the choice of the driver who illegally parked his car, and the choice of the inattentive driver heading up Third Avenue all play a role in the outcome. Everyone has a right to choose how they act at every moment of every day. It is through those choices, and sometimes the choice of others, that dictate the outcome. Simply put: There is no fate but what we make.
And what of the statement “how could God have let this happen?” The statement implies that God permitted this young girl to die. By further implication, God failed to protect her. It is not unusual to question how it is that there is so much tragedy in the world. If we assume, as we should, that God is a loving God and all-knowing as well as all powerful, it would not take much for God to have prevented that girl from entering the intersection or stopped that car dead before it reached the intersection. These are certainly within God’s power. Thus, people wonder how it is that God would permit such a senseless tragedy to happen. We have seen this time and time again. Just recently, a bus carrying young hockey players was split in two by a tractor trailer in Canada. I have seen comments on the Internet of a similar nature – wondering how God could permit these young boys, heading to a hockey game to suffer such a horrible fate.
We see monstrous tragedies every day as a result of nature or at the hands of man, and some question the existence of a loving God to allow these to go forward. Human history is full of examples of horrors that the human race has suffered. However, it all comes down to choice. I fervently believe that God has imbued us with the ultimate freedom, the freedom to choose how we live every minute of every day. We choose and sometimes choices made by others impact us in a very meaningful way. But, at its core is the ability to choose. So you might ask, even with the gift of complete and utter freedom to choose how we will live, why is it that God could not, still, step in and prevent these tragedies. The problem with that thinking is that if we are truly free and we truly can choose, it would be almost wrong for God to intervene. Think of it, assume for a moment that God, from time-to-time or often, prevented tragedies from happening. God could have surely prevented those planes from crashing into the World Trade Center and saved the lives of those who jumped, probably thinking that God’s hand would lower them to the ground safely. If God were to do that, we would not truly be free. We would begin to make choices based upon the belief that God will intervene to prevent those choices from becoming tragic. We would begin to make wrong choices, purposefully, believing God would step in at the last moment and save us. If we are truly to be free and to have the gift of choice, God must not intervene.
Here is an analogy that might make it clearer. Picture parents at their child’s soccer game. The child is excited for the contest and looking forward to getting on the field. The parents remains on the sidelines wishing nothing but the best experience for their child. The child’s mother and father watch with rapt attention, beaming with pride, as the game progresses. Let’s say, however, that one of the other children purposefully trip that parent’s child. What are the parents’ options? Should the parent run on the field and punish the child who tripped their child? I would not recommend it, as it will probably land the parent in jail. The parent sees their child on the ground writhing in pain and can do nothing other than be concerned and even feel the pain that their child is feeling.
Next, let’s assume that the child is a goalie and one of the other team’s players is charging towards the goal line. The parent can feel their child’s excitement getting ready to, hopefully, stop the goal. If the parent’s child does prevent the winning score, the child’s adulation will be readily apparent. The parent will join in that adulation and feel it as well – again beaming with pride and happiness for their child that has just done something that the parent knows will make that child happy. On the other hand, the player charging down the field, kicks the ball and the parents’ child dives for it and it simply extends shortly beyond that child’s outstretched fingers and the goal is scored. The game is over and the parents’ child is devastated. What is a parent to do there? The parent could not run on the field when they saw that the goal maybe scored against their child. The parent could not push their child a little bit further so her outstretched fingers made contact with the ball preventing the goal. The parent feels the child’s pain and will be there for the child when she comes to the sidelines saddened by her inability to prevent the willing score. The parent will hug the child and tell her “don’t worry, you will get them next time, just keep it going.” The parent will whisper in the child’s ear how much he loves her and encourage her to accept the loss and move on.
God is like a parent at a soccer game. God feels the pain of loss with the child and celebrates success, if that is what occurs. God whispers like the parent whispers to those who are in pain to provide them with solace and encouragement to make the best choice possible faced with a terrible situation. That is the extent of God’s help and, if one were to listen very carefully, when asking the question “God, how could you allow this to happen?” one might understand that allowing us freedom and the freedom to choose is God’s gift to us and through God’s encouragement in the face of such horrific tragedy we will persevere.
What of the question raised by the parent as well wondering how she could suffer such pain and loss having lived her life in a way that would emulate God’s teachings. This is tied into the phrase that we hear when people have some measure of success or happiness in that they will be deemed to be “blessed.” If that is the case, are people who sustain tragic losses in their lives “cursed?”
Let’s look at the Kardashians. Now, I do not know these individuals. All I know about them is what I see in the media. From what I see I draw certain conclusions and, therefore, apologize if I am, in fact, incorrect. Nevertheless, these people are good looking, financially successful, have many fans, and seem to be, for all intents and purposes “blessed.” Assuming for a moment, that what we see is actually how these people live, one can conclude that they are narcissistic, self-congratulatory, selfish and vacuous human beings. How can it be that God would permit such people to have such interesting and from what we see, wonderful lives. This could be said of many people that we see who seem to have “God’s blessings” in terms of their wealth or good looks or what we perceive to be happiness. I do not believe that anyone is “blessed.” Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people and it is nothing to do with God’s “blessings.”
If, as I surmise, we are truly free with the freedom to choose as we see fit, we can choose truth and goodness or we can choose to act in ways that may be deemed the opposite. There are too many very wealthy people who live horrible lives and show nothing but disrespect for their fellow man and no one should ever say that they are “blessed.” There are also many good people who cannot seem to catch a break – who wonder why it is that they do all the right things and simply do not have the outcome they had hoped for. This is because of choice. It may be other people’s choices that prevent the outcome that you desire. It may be your choices. Nevertheless, God does not bless some and curse others.
As God does not intervene to stop that girl from crossing the street, God does not bestow wealth, beauty, even happiness or anyone to the detriment of others. It is all a matter of choice.
I know many people who pray for particular outcomes. I know that I did when my brother lost a three-week battle with cancer last Fall. Those who pray for particular outcomes will often be disappointed. And, with that disappointment, they may question how it is that they could pray so hard and “do all the right things” and yet not have their prayers “answered.” Praying to God for a particular outcome (and I do not wish to be blasphemous) is a waste of time. While God can certainly do all things and is capable of answering every prayer, it is simply not to be done. I am sure that miracles are possible, and I certainly do not put them beyond God’s reach. But, if I am correct and God’s gift of choice should not be interfered with, as if it is essentially the “prime directive,” then I say do not feel cheated if your prayers are unanswered. God is not cheating you of anything. God is giving you the right to live your life and to make choices. He will not make the mega millions balls fall in a certain way to match your numbers. He will not cure your child of depression or cancer. He will, however, give you the ability to choose as best that you can, competing with everyone else’s choices, to address the situation facing you and, more importantly, to give you strength as the tragedies of our lives unfold. So choose, but choose wisely.
That is where we should most look to God – to give us wisdom on the choices that we make on a daily basis. And to provide us solace in the pain that we are feeling after a tragic loss. I am sure that some of you are questioning my theory in the light of some other experiences which do not appear to include choice. Let’s say a young child develops cancer. The child certainly did not choose to act in a certain way to expose them to cancer and let’s assume, for a moment, that no other choice was made by a third party such as their parent that would have exposed them to a situation where they would get cancer. One might ask “where does freedom to choose fit in there?” Well, I think that here, choice and freedom must be looked at somewhat differently. As we assume in this example that no choice has been made by anyone, how is it that a young child’s cells can split in such a way such that cancerous cells begin to multiply in the child’s body. Where is God in this scenario? Well – here is my take. Freedom is the absence of an intervening act which inhibits freedom. Clearly, your freedom to become a professional football player if you are 5’9” and 180 lbs will be countered by the fact that you are not big enough, fast enough or strong enough since everyone else playing professional football is bigger, faster and stronger. Your freedom is inhibited by those facts. Even the wind’s freedom to blow at a certain direction may be inhibited by another weather system that comes into play or mountains that stand in the wind’s way. In some ways freedom goes to a cellular level having nothing to do with choice. No one would say that the cancer cells made a choice to multiply in the fashion that they did. But they were free to do so because nothing at that moment inhibited them from doing so. Freedom is built into our DNA. Freedom to choose is at the core of our very soul. So, the fact that a child develops cancer is not unlike God standing on the sidelines at the soccer game. All things will play out and as much as the meaning of life does not include God intervening with choices that are made by the players on the field the freedom of a cell to be uninhibited by another corresponding action to multiply in a certain way is consistent with my overall narrative. There is no one to blame, certainly not God, when such a tragedy happens.
For those of you who are reading this and maybe are disillusioned because they have always been told that “God will provide” or that if you pray hard enough your prayers will be answered – don’t be. There is nothing controversial in what I am saying here. You are free to choose and yes others’ choices may make your choice for you, but if you think about it – you would not want it any other way. The gift of freedom and the freedom to choose bestowed on us by God is the greatest gift of all. It makes a huge universe of options possible and within your very control. What I am saying should not deflate you but empower you.
Here’s a movie reference. Does anyone remember the Matrix Trilogy? In one scene “the Architect” is speaking to Neo and describing the Matrix and how there had been multiple versions of it over time. One of those included outcomes that were favorable to those within the Matrix and it failed. Again, there is sometimes truth in fiction. If we were not 100% free, free to enjoy happiness as well as sadness, we would be less than we are.
I understand that people find solace in the idea some infinitely strong being is out there ready to intervene. Respectfully, that is true and untrue. It is true to the extent that God has your back and will encourage, console, help you make the right decision and the like but he will not pick up a sword to defend you. You are empowered to do that yourself. Likewise when tragedy strikes, he will not turn back time so that the tragedy could be prevented. But he will console you and strengthen you –if you listen. And if you do listen (and I think those who have suffered horrific losses may listen harder) I think that you would understand that we can choose from so many options to derive happiness in life and a big part of that is doing right by others. Helping those who need help makes us Godlike indeed.
In closing, I hope I have not offended anyone. I certainly do not want to be at odds with my church. But on that spiritual note- do not pray to win the lottery, pray for wisdom, don’t pray that the Giants win the Super Bowl ( and I am a BIG Giant’s fan) pray for guidance, don’t pray for God to turn back time, pray for solace, healing and peace. And, most of all, know that the power to change and to persevere after tragedy is within you and is cheered on by God. Remember -every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around. Be well