God Rest His Soul

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Three months ago, my beloved stepfather, Billy, lost a short but brutal fight with liver cancer. As you might imagine, his illness and death elicited the typical avalanche of prayer offerings, most of which I didn’t actually mind, understanding that for many people this is a conditioned way of expressing compassion. (We tell Christians to chill out this time of year when people say “happy holidays,” after all, because it’s said in kindness, so it would be a bit hypocritical of me not to take my own advice on this front.) So while I occasionally had the urge to respond with, “Thanks, and could you please tell god while you’re at it that his plan really sucks?” I bit my tongue and for the most part appreciated the caring intent behind the words.

Then there were the non-prayer-offering references to god’s role in our personal tragedy that were harder to swallow. Take, for example, my very sweet but intensely catholic aunt, who approached me after the funeral to say that “God didn’t want you working right now so that you could be here to help your mom.” (I had lost my job in a devastating way a couple of months before Billy died, so had spent a lot of time helping them both throughout his illness.) I smiled and agreed that I was glad to have the availability to be there for Mom, but the cluelessness of the remark settled squarely in my craw. Was she really saying I should be grateful that god cost me my job and risked my family’s financial security so that I could stand beside my mother while he tortured her husband to death? It wasn’t her intention to be insensitive, and I’m certain my translation would never in a million years have occurred to her – but alas, that is in effect what she said.

But wait, there’s more! My mother is also catholic, and though she had lapsed for decades, in recent years she and Billy had been attending mass on Christmas Eve, and then when Billy was diagnosed she started going every week. When he died she therefore wanted, and planned, a catholic funeral. Setting aside the rituals and choreography that comprise a catholic mass, which – let’s face it – are mighty strange if not downright cultish, the content of the service was almost more than I could bear. The parts of the mass that were mass-centric, as opposed to Billy-centric, groveled over Jesus’ greatness and mercy in a manner I found borderline undignified; I mean really, yes, he’s the bees’ knees, the bomb, da man. We get it already. The parts of the mass that purported to actually be about Billy called on the congregation to thank god for the good memories and for the fact that Billy’s suffering was over, and to take comfort in the “knowledge” that he was now in heaven in the supposedly loving embrace of our holy father. It took an active and not insignificant effort of will not to leap out of my seat and shout “FUCK YOUR GOD!” at the top of my lungs. As this would have been a wholly inappropriate and unhelpful contribution, something that even the most militant atheist should be able to appreciate, I of course did no such thing.

I can hear you now asking, “How can you be angry at god unless you believe he exists?” To which I respond that I am not angry at god because – wait for it – he doesn’t exist. But what does exist is a pervasive desire to trivialize human suffering as a way of minimizing our own discomfort, an irresistible need to believe that there must be a benevolent purpose to even the most horrific of circumstances so that we can maintain our delusions of invincibility and of the overall magnanimity of the universe. Can I understand these fears and desires from an academic perspective? Sure. But this wasn’t academic. This was, and is, deeply personal. People – most of whom had not seen what the cancer had done to my robust, loud mouthed, irreverent, hilarious, proud, strong stepfather – who had not seen how it tormented him, how it had broken him, how it had stripped him of his dignity – were actually giving thanks to the being that they believed allowed this to happen. Worse, they were asking ME to give thanks, to praise this being who they believed tortured Billy to death for having done him a favor. This is not a failing on god’s part, since there is no god to fail. It is, however, an unconscionable failing of humanity that what amounts to mocking a dead loved one’s suffering passes for compassion.

What happened to Billy was the result of biology, a pattern of unfortunate life choices made over many years, and perhaps some degree of random chance. He wasn’t being punished, or tested, or rewarded, nor were his illness and death part of some larger plan to teach my mother or me a lesson about something. It just happened. There was no greater purpose, no lesson to be taught or learned, and no reward to him for enduring it in the form of an eternal afterlife in heaven. The religious may not accept these truths, and in all frankness, I don’t care whether they do or not. But I do hope that the more thoughtful among them give serious consideration to whether their customs and rituals in the face of such tragedies serve to comfort the victims and survivors, or themselves.

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