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The Pain of Knowing

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, NNblow!

Your cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

till you have drenched our steeples, NNdrowned the cocks! . . .

And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at NNonce

That makes ungrateful man!

—Lear, insane, in King Lear, Act III, Scene 2

Adam and Eve, you’ve got to love them, poor schlubs. All that those mythic parents of ours wanted to know was the answer to everything. Is that so bad?

What happened to them didn’t have anything to do with apples. It didn’t have anything to do with sex. It was understanding that they hungered for, knowledge. It was the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that they found so juicily irresistible. It was supposed to make them all-wise, all- knowing. Hell, I’d have eaten it, too.

But once they eat it they end up knowing too much. They know about their imperfect bodies, for example—a little nose hair here, a little flab there, body parts that are just not the ample dimensions they had seemed when life had been all about love, love, love and nectar-and-ambrosia.

Along with discovering that she’s not Angelina and he’s not Brad, Adam and Eve also discover the satisfaction of lying and blaming. Adam lies to God. Then Adam blames Eve for the fruit episode. Eve blames the serpent. I’d have blamed the serpent, too.

It’s all there in that little story: the craving to know, the drive to blame.

Meanwhile, we’re all like Lear standing on the heath in the middle of the storm, and frankly, we don’t understand it; we don’t know what to make of it:

The earth around us has been groaning and heaving and pulsing and weeping, releasing the dead from their coffins, entombing others in graves of mud or water or rubble. The earth is dispersing its inhabitants, taking the streets away, smashing civic order with disaster.

It has always seemed so easy, so benign to assign the earth an identity and a personality. We give it a pronoun and celebrate her as our primal mother, the cradle and sustainer of human life. Now we are on shaky ground when we try to anthropomorphize a planet convulsing with natural disasters. Because what are we supposed to say in the midst of all this? That Mother Nature is mad as hell? That Gaia is in menopause?

Certainly that’s a temptation that folks of a variety of faith traditions have indulged, casting God as a supreme rule-keeper, meting out consequences like a divine Dean of Discipline. That kind of thinking is best summed up by the billboard that says “God is coming and, boy, is he pissed!”

But it’s also on record that some religious leaders have seen the hand of God working in what can only be described as absurdly mysterious ways: the tsunami as God’s judgment on a predominantly Muslim nation; Katrina as a cosmic finger-shaking from God aimed right at the southern crescent of sin.

Most people find that kind of thinking reprehensible, an insult both to our intelligence and the nature of God. But however offensive the claims, they arise from that basic, burning human drive for knowledge and the accompanying expediency of blaming others for why bad things happen.

It’s almost unbearable to have to believe that bad things just happen.

And it isn’t only fanatical finger-pointers who want to understand what happens when nature groans and shudders. We all do.

“How can I feel good about being safe when I just read that the earthquake has now taken over 20,000 lives?” a woman asked me recently.

“Why did this happen?” somebody else asked me about the tour boat accident on Lake George.

“Where was God in the hurricane?” is the headline of a story in a magazine I saw.

When it comes to violence and terrors humans do to other humans, there is usually some kind of reason, however despicable. And blaming makes some sense, too, as a way of assigning culpability. But accidents, natural disasters—what are, unfortunately, termed “acts of God” in insurance policies and legal contracts—don’t respond to our rage for order, for our compulsion to try to understand why bad things happen.

For some people the idea that bad things happen for no good reason settles the question once and for all: God simply does not and can not exist.

For other people, the idea that bad things happen for no good reason is unacceptable; it would too much threaten their idea of a puppeteer God who oversees and decrees every human action.

It’s no wonder we hunger for understanding. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil seems to promise responses to questions that now only echo back to us answered.

But I think that probably most people live in-between the two poles that either deny God’s existence or cast God as the Master Blaster. I think most people hold to both a belief in mystery and wonder as well as in random misery. And maybe that’s the most rugged kind of faithfulness to live with and embrace—the strange tension of affirming some sort of good God even while recognizing that we are far, very far east of Eden.

—Jo Page

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