Dec 5, 2012

The Problem of (Seeing) People's Pain: A Book Review

“...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

"Where did it all go wrong?" asks a U2 song we downloaded last year.  Not sure where that one came from- but it asks a good question.

I remember when my friends and I were pure potential.  Big fish in a tiny little out-of-the-way pond.  And maybe if it weren't for facebook I could still imagine us all this way.  But I can't.

Even as late as seminary I still thought I'd do alright with life.  I had an older Volvo then.  A Volvo- can you imagine?  And I really thought it was the start of a lifetime of the same.  Material possessions are not the point, but merely an illustration of my expectations.

I heard about another friend's divorce this week.  Statistically, this shouldn't come as a surprise; but it does.  It's not even the divorces of my friends, so much as the stories they tell me of how they came about.

Grapes of Wrath?  What am I talking about?  Hold on- I'll pull it together here in second.

My point here is the choices we've all made.  Sin is sin and fallen-ness is real.  I heard that years ago and I should've understood then, but I didn't.  Maybe this is what Calvin is talking about with his tulips.  My friend Jeremy told me years ago when I said how cool he was (this was before I had learned enough about aloof ironic distance and keeping my mouth shut) that every human being would let you down and you can only put your hope in God.  It was a very wise statement from a young kid.  Don't know where he is now, but if he kept up with that kind of wisdom, he may be on a mountain top somewhere sitting cross-legged and meditating.

Back to the divorces.  Perhaps I'm extra sensitive to that one given my personal backstory, but it always takes my breath away that these friends who I thought were so together got themselves into such sad and/or sordid situations. (and if you know the Indigo Girls song, I mean "together" in a totally different way)  I know that some of you I'm referring to will read this.  I hope you don't take it too personally because I'm trying hard to combine all of your situations together into a very sad smoothie.  There's no need for specifics, but how did we end up here?  Where did it all go wrong?  Thank God my marriage is strong, but I am certainly not where I thought life would take me.  In some ways it's better- my daughter comes to mind- but I would've thought by now I could pay the rent at the end of the month.  I would've thought I'd know what I was going to do with my life.  And even in things I'm supposed to know about- such as the Bible- the people I work with put me to shame.  Know so much more than I do.

We all meant well, didn't we?  So how did women I knew and respected make such poor choices in partners?  And vice-versa?  What happened to us all?  Life?  Is that all life amounts to- a slow decline into a parody of what we expected?

Maybe another time I'll take this down the path it's going- that of the fallibility of all creation- but for now, I want to bring this around to some sort of a book review.  I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath again last night (have read it before) and the families throughout the novel struggle with these same sorts of questions.  How did we end up here?  We were good people, how were our farms taken?  Our dignity taken?  Our families taken away bit by bit?  {Grandpa buried on the side of the road... Grandma dead, and left in a basket at the coroner's to be buried in a pauper's grave... Rose Of Sharon's baby born dead, and floating away down the flood... Tom running from the law... The preacher dead to the thugs that resist positive change...  Al left behind to guard their "possessions" in an old boxcar... and the children turning half-wild}

Maybe I will go just a few steps down the path I spoke of above.  Because having watched just a little of Ken Burns' Dust Bowl documentary, I know a small bit about what happened.  The dust bowl was a result of too much plowing of too much land in a windy, flat place.  Good year followed good year of crops and the people who were alive at that time say as much themselves:  it was greed.  If you had X plowed the year before and made good money, you plowed X+1 the next year, until vast amounts of the prairies were devoid  of the grass (and more importantly, its roots) that held the land together.  When it was covered with crops, everything was OK.  But when drought came, and crops wouldn't grow, the land had no foundation.  And the wind blew it away.  Thus the families were reaping what they had sowed themselves.  Are my friends and I just doing the same?  Perhaps.  I hope not.

And if so, I can't bear the thought.  Much like Ma couldn't bear to watch her family broken up, and Tom couldn't stand and watch Casy be killed.  That's another thing that comes with a little age.  In my twenties perhaps I could have glibly said, "Well, sin brings on consequences" when asked why bad things happen to good people.  But I just don't have the strength to stand on that kind of pedestal anymore.  I don't have the heart to apply that kind of justice to friends' lives, friends who I love.

"Tom laughed uneasily, 'Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one- an' then..."-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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