Yesterday I got into an argument with a woman friend, whom I'll call “Aysa.” We were in a restaurant with another woman friend, who didn't get into the dispute, partly because she had not seen The Tree of Life, which had set Aysa and me off onto our dispute.
We both loved the film, about half of which was a tour of the cosmos—gorgeous images of galaxies, volcanoes, dinosaurs, cells, and blood flowing through capillaries, The rest of the movie was an astonishing exploration of theodicy: the theological effort to justify God's ways to humankind. We hear the thoughts and overt interactions of a Texas family as they try to make sense of life's vicissitudes.
There is love, cruelty, and death. Aysa thought that the film's message was Christian, but I thought it was universal, addressing the questions that everyone considers—at least everyone who tries to believe that the universe has meaning and that it's run by a beneficent god. One of the family's three sons even flings the same insult at God as the biblical Job had uttered, saying that God is not good, so why should He be obeyed? And the film’s reply, I think, was the same as Jehovah had given to Job as a voice from the whirlwind; Where were you when I created the stars, the mountains, the volcanoes, and all the creatures? I think He meant: Do you dare to question me, the author of the universe! You could not understand if I did explain myself. You must simply trust me. In the story, nevertheless, God does not punish Job for his audacity, but prefers his bold approach to that of the visitors who come to see Job and invent lame excuses for the Almighty, unfairly blaming Job for his own misfortunes.
I have always accepted only half of God's reply. Surely it was wrong of God to let Satan put Job through all those horrible tests just to prove that one man—and perhaps only one man, Job--would remain faithful however much he suffered. That seems deeply wrong to me. But the rest of the speech from the whirlwind made perfect sense to me. If God has a huge beneficent plan in the works that will take eons to complete, surely it would involve having certain things happen now that would seem unreasonable to us in terms of our own limited vision and intellectual capacities. If I am going to see this universe as benign at all, run by a well-meaning God, then I must accept the whole of it, not just the pleasant parts, And I must simply trust that there is a good reason for the unpleasant parts which I cannot fathom. I can't be grateful for the sweet unless I accept the bitter too.
The film shows the cosmos and makes us awed by the majestic intelligence managing it. The whole thing is so magnificent that we must recognize ourselves humbly as fully as wondrous an invention as the dinosaurs and feel grateful for being a part of it, even for a short time. We are part of nature, part of the plan, and we can never know where the whole thing is going or why. Just trust it.
Or don't trust it, if that's your preference. Aysa chooses not to trust it, reverting to the same objections that other non-believers always do: the argument about evil. If God were good, he would not allow the horrors of X to exist, (Fill in X with whatever unpleasantness bothers you most. To me, X is birth. Even animals must suffer terribly in birth.)
To Aysa, X was the Dalits of India. She had gone to a slum in Delhi and had seen “Untouchables” living under bridges, drinking water polluted with effluent from the latrines up above them. Initially she adduced this as proof that God is not good. But soon she changed her interpretation, saying that it was not God who had created the horrors of the caste system and poverty, but human beings.
I replied that God had created human beings too, and had made us stupid enough to need a lot of improvement. It makes no more sense to blame humankind for the evil of caste and poverty than to blame God for making dinosaurs that eat other animals.
Does that sound as if I endorsed the perpetuation of evil? Did I seem to be saying that, because caste and poverty exist, we should accept them instead of trying to overcome them? I hope not. I explained that I see those social evils as problems and I believe we must each choose certain problems as our own and devote ourselves to trying to solve them. I spoke admiringly of my friend Jean Dreze, an eminent economist who lives among the poorest people of India. He shares what he has with them, and works to overcome their poverty by legislative lobbying. His campaign has succeeded in getting laws passed guaranteeing each family the right to a paid job a certain number of hours per year. Now he's working to guarantee everyone the right to enough food to survive, no matter what. He has chosen a wonderful problem to address. Aysa herself has also chosen an urgent problem – to overcome violence against women. And I have a great problem too: overcoming war.
But, I proclaimed, I thank God for my problems! In explaining, I recounted one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
My grandmother was our Sunday School teacher that day. One of the other kids asked her what heaven was. She replied: “It's a wonderful place where you can go after you die, if you have been very good. It is perfect and it lasts forever. You will get anything you want without having to work or make any effort. There will be no struggle, no difficulty, no problems.”
I decided immediately: I refuse to go there. it would be hell! Nothing to do, no problems to solve. Never! I want lots of good, interesting, important problems to work on, whether I succeed in solving them or not. I’ve never changed my mind. But how many problems do we need? And how difficult or easy should they be?
Aysa saw my basic point and agreed that we might want to have a few challenges to keep life interesting, but certainly not such horrible ones as the misery of the Dalits. Their suffering still proved to her that God must be cruel.
To me it only proved that the universe is a marvelous game. The definition of a game is that people choose particular obstacles and try to overcome them. They adopt specific problems. In this universe, there’s a wide variety of problems—some chosen voluntarily, others inflicted on you. Some are easy, others hard. While you’re working on a problem, you don’t usually feel joyous, but considerable stress. The mountain climber whose rope is fraying feels terror, I suppose, but it’s a challenge she has chosen voluntarily.
The most useful course I ever took was from Karl Popper. He said that the progress of science (actually, even the arts, and certainly human society) involves continuous problem-solving in which you never prove what is true, but only disprove what is false, one theory at a time, eliminating errors and thereby getting closer to the truth. You never reach the truth, but just keep getting closer by finding crucial problems to solve. A genius, he said, is someone with an excellent nose for problems.
But you’d think that problems were scarce, considering how many people pick small, puny ones. Crossword puzzles instead of eradicating poverty or war or violence against women. People say they want to get away and avoid problems by traveling abroad, or lying on the beach. What a meaningless life!
My favorite theologian was not a religious writer at all but the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he never referred to “God” at all but said that “Life” gives unique duties to each one of us. We can look for them eagerly and take them up voluntarily, or try to avoid them. Meaningful living is the avid quest for the special problems directed to us, moment by moment by “Life.” The amazing thing is that one can be satisfied working on such problems even in the worst circumstances imaginable. Frankl had spent the war as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, and he took his responsibility to be that of helping others find the meaning of their own lives, identifying the challenges that they were supposed to take on. Of course, everyone knows how horrible the concentration camps were, but Frankl recalls periods of serenity or even exaltation there. Sometimes the only option is to suffer. Then just suffer willingly, as well as possible. I remember when I was giving birth to my son. The only thing I had to do was painful, so I remember saying, “Okay, God. Bring it on. I will see how well I can do it.”
That made it a “game”: choosing the obstacles to work on. It was not fun, of course, but the best games are hard. Often life imposes them on us, but we can choose them anyhow. So long as we can’t get out of a concentration camp, we can choose it as a problem to address with all our heart.
The Dalits are not just passive victims either. They are working on problems too. Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail correspondent, writes about them in his book, Arrival City. The slums of Delhi are terrible, but better, he says, than the rural villages from which the inhabitants migrated. Moreover, slum dwellers all around the world don’t stay in the same slum forever. They go back and forth to the countryside, they send remittances to their families, they find better jobs and better houses, and they bring their relatives to live with them. The Dalits are on the way up, albeit living for the moment under the bridges of their “arrival city.”
But slums present a fine problem to anyone else who chooses to work on improving them. Caste and poverty are horrible and, as Aysa insists, they are made by human beings. Ignorant human beings.
So our job is to fix ourselves and to repair other ignorant human beings too. We all require improvement. Social problems are the best challenges. Thank God for my superb problems! And there are plenty more to go around. Help yourself to a few.