East and WestWhen suffering doesn’t make sense [Archives:2005/806/Opinion]

January 10 2005

By Jamil Abdul Karim
Ever hear of the poor guy who kept pulling his own hair out because he was so worried that he was going bald? Ever feel like him? I do. After all, life can be uncertain, and when one feels very fortunate, there is always opportunity to worry that one's treasures might somehow, someday, all be lost.

Maybe I'm a bit like Job. You know Job. This ancient Middle East figure had everything, but in a strange twist of fate, lost it all overnight. His children, his vast riches, and finally his health: gone. All Job had left were so-called friends, and his wife, who told him to curse God and die, or at least fess up that he was being punished for some secret wrongdoing.

Interestingly, this timeless story begins by noting, like the man pulling his hair out, that what Job greatly feared is what eventually fell upon him.

In my case, I fear surgery. Of course, anyone else's surgery can be interesting. In the outback of Congo, I was once rather intrigued while photographing a Canadian doctor perform a surgery with only the early-morning sun for light.

The surgery I fear, however, is another type. In my better moments, I know there really is no need to worry (for tomorrow has enough worries of its own.) But lately, maybe like you, I've been reminded of how dreadful this surgery can be, by the terribly-unexplainable tsunami disasters in southeast Asia.

It's the surgery of suffering.

In our more honest moments, we not only fear suffering, we have this terrible knowledge that we can't really avoid it. True, we can cause our own suffering. Smoke, and get cancer. Don't exercise, and get heart disease. But cancer and heart disease can also strike anyone. Yes, suffering has this ugly, lurking randomness. We innately know if it didn't come like a killer wave in 2004, it will hit in '05 (Happy New Year), or in '06, or some other inopportune time. How disturbing.

Lost jobs, lost relationships, lost health, it can be one type of shattered dream or another. That's not 150,000 dead, but it still registers on our Richter scale as an incredibly brutal upheaval. In fact, if your experiences are like anything mine, you feel like you're being stretched, arms spread open, for some unseen force to rip into your insides and do things that you don't think are really all that necessary.

Thankfully, Job's misguided friends were wrong. When he finally got his personal meeting with the Almighty, Job was vindicated by a powerful yet loving God who blasted the others for their rotten advice. During our own hard times, this can be comforting. And this should also help us deal with wonky people who claim that victims of disasters, especially natural disasters, are being divinely punished for their moral waywardness.

Regarding the tsunami disaster, as recently noted by Yemen Times publisher Walid al-Saqqaf, this is what some Muslim preachers here are telling the masses. (Not unlike some Christian leaders elsewhere, talking about, say, AIDS.) How incredible that these Muslim clerics then still vilify the U.S., as usual for its foreign policies, while America is among the largest deliverers of aid to tsunami victims who happen to be largely Muslim. As Walid says, “How bizarre.”

No, life is rarely so black and white. In fact, there's a mystery that says this life is like a hazy mirror. We can't see everything clearly, yet. Job was never told exactly why he had to suffer. Similarly, people in the developing world, already impoverished, may never know why they're the members of the human family who get more than their share of natural disasters. Sadly, this may even increase, as population and migration patterns move more of the world's poor closer to dangerous fault zones.

Yet, another mystery says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Maybe this is why, in my observation, people in the Third World tend to have more humility, and even joy, than those in the “I-have-it-all-together” west. It seems that's what heart surgery does.

Maybe it can do the same for us spectators. No matter how much we may fear it all.

Jamil Abdul Karim is a

Yemen Times editor.

Email: [email protected]