Personal tragedy visited Jack. Although in his sixties and retired, he still felt young. His whole life revolved around doing handyman jobs in his own home and in the homes of his three daughters. He greatly enjoyed the company of his family and their appreciation. But recently he was experiencing some troubling ailments.
First he noticed he was getting blood in
his stools. He put this down to
haemorrhoids, a common enough problem in his age group. However, it was when he started experiencing some abnormal bowel complaints that he took himself off to the doctor who immediately did tests. The results were rather worrying. The doctor explained that cancer gives people no symptoms or signs that exclusively indicate the disease and that he should see a specialist immediately for further examination.
Typical fears in response to personal tragedy
We can imagine how Jack felt. He was facing the prospect of taking some powerful drugs with all sorts of uncomfortable side effects. He dreaded the thought of likely skin changes and fatigue due to radiation therapy, and his imagination started to run away with itself as he dwelt on surgery. Would treatment work? Would his body be permanently impaired? Would he die?
How could Jack best deal with his fears? Just how does one face a personal tragedy?
Passive victim role in response to a personal tragedy
Some people respond to bad personal news by becoming a passive victim: repeatedly saying to themselves “It’s not right… I don’t deserve this… I am helpless.” It is as if they see a dangerous animal approaching and instead of doing something about it, they become paralysed. They had always believed the world should be fair and can’t seem to get their heads around the point that sometimes this isn’t necessarily so.
Not everyone allows himself or herself to become a passive victim of personal tragedy even when confronted by the most appalling circumstances. Many of the survivors of concentration camps were able to endure because they refused to give in to feeling victimized. For example Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, whose basic human rights and possessions were removed, used his one remaining freedom to keep up his spirits. This was the freedom to choose his own inner attitude of mind in response to the outer horrible situation.
Making assumptions about the consequences of a personal tragedy
If you had been sent to a death camp maybe you would have feared the worst. But how would you have known? Assuming you are utterly helpless in the face of fate is a feature of being a passive victim. But no one can know the future. Frankl wasn’t to know whether he would survive or die.
If your baby were deaf, mute and blind, this indeed would be a personal tragedy and you would probably assume the end of the world for your child. But how could you know this? Through exactly this profound disability Helen Keller found an uplifting spirit and fulfilling adult life.
There was a man who had syphilis. His wife had TB. One of their four children dies and the others suffer from an incurable illness that is considered terminal. The mother is pregnant. What should she do? You might say she should have an abortion. If so, you have just killed the composer Ludwig Van Beethoven.
The prospects for anyone may seem dire. But how do you know? How do know what is going to happen in the next hour let alone the next month? Who can be so sure about what is going on around the corner?
“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in
life!” (Marcus Aurelius)
Some things will be bad; a few things are exceptionally bad but not the end of the world. And no matter how bad it is, can’t you stand it? Can’t you adapt?
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them” (Epictetus)
Wanting to cast blame in response to a personal tragedy
In his book ‘Why does God let it happen?’ Bruce Henderson suggests that people often make the mistake of assuming that whatever personal tragedy God permits to happen in the world, he must be the cause. He also criticizes the belief that ill fortune is a deserved punishment for a past misdeed.
He puts forward an alternative religious view that God is like a parent who allows the children freedom to do as they choose even if this means mankind behaves badly at times with tragic consequences. According to this view, trying to impose total control over our behaviour or ways of thinking would stifle us and we would not be free to develop as individuals as we wish but instead turn out like pre-programmed robots.
A loving parent who allows the child freedom to make mistakes is one who wants to help as much as possible giving advice, offering support and encouragement and so on. The religious person trusts that likewise God is a loving parent whose divine providence is flowing into our lives to counterbalance the bad things we are experiencing. In other words it is claimed that a loving God provides some element of hope to make up for misery, some degree of sense to offset foolishness or an inflow of good feeling to compensate for evil.
Just as the child learns through mistakes so spiritual growth can sometimes only happen if first a person has to face and deal with something of personal tragedy.
I do believe that no matter what hardships we endure, God is with us all the time, lifting us up, helping us to find a way through, if we will only be open to this.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems