Meaninglessness and the Accidental Uzi Shooting

01 Sep
September 1, 2014

The poet Gregory Orr had an arresting article in the New York Times yesterday about the young New Jersey girl who lost control of a submachine gun and killed her gun instructor.  When Orr was twelve, he accidentally shot and killed his brother while they were hunting.  I took a poetry workshop with Orr at the University of Virginia nearly thirty years ago.  He never mentioned the accident, but it and the familial estrangement that followed is everywhere in his poetry.  I have carried some of the poems around in my mind ever since, including “Child’s Song,” which concludes: “Even I,/who am not wanted, was once/borne up through deep waters/by the invisible arms of desire.”

Orr does not try to explain horrible events like these.  He insists that they cannot be explained.  “In my experience,” Orr writes, “people in a family are often willing to take on responsibility and guilt rather than admit something even scarier: that accidents happen; that even the most ordinary among us live in a world of risk and randomness that we don’t control.”

I think Orr is profoundly right about this.  In the chapter of True Paradox on suffering, I talk about and endorse my late friend Bill Stuntz’s belief that, contrary to what many Christians well-meaningly suggest, horrible suffering often is, in a very real sense, meaningless.  God does not intend it.  Rather, he allows it and promises to redeem it.  As Bill was dying of colon cancer, he often thought and wrote about the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.  Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and ended up as a result in Egypt, where he rose to prominence and was later in a position to save his family from starvation.  Commenting on Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Bill wrote in an essay on his own suffering: “That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good; rather the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph.”

The twentieth century mystic Simon Weil said something similar.  She insisted that the joy in our lives cannot remove the effects of suffering, but it can sometimes transform them.  This of course is the central promise of Christianity, that because of Jesus’s own suffering, “each one of us” (as Bill put it in the same essay) “has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.”

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