In tragedy, consolation only goes so far

In tragedy, consolation only goes so far

By Jeff Greenfield

When John Kennedy Jr., son of the former president, died with his wife and sister-in-law in a plane crash in 1999, I heard a well-known televangelist assured us that “this is all part of God’s plan.”

A few days later, I was part of CNN’s coverage of the funeral mass. We’d asked a young priest from the New York archdiocese to join us in explaining the ritual, and during a commercial break I asked him, “do you think what happened is all part of God’s plan?”

“Oh, no,” he said emphatically. “This sucks.”

Every time a disaster like Monday’s tornado in Moore, Okla., strikes, I find myself wishing I had asked the priest that question on the air—and that he’d answered it in just that way.

When an act of nature—or for that matter, an act of evil, like the murder of twenty 6-year-olds in their elementary school--chills the soul, the search for consolation and some piece of wisdom or comfort is understandable. A victim pulled alive from the rubble of a massive earthquake is proclaimed “a miracle!” At the funeral of a slain child, a mourner will say, “God must have wanted another little angel.”

If such thoughts provide comfort to someone who has lost a loved one to the savagery of nature or man, well and good. For me--to borrow from novelist Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”-- this is not the God I would like to believe in.

The Supreme Being I would sign up for would not prove his omnipotence by saving one life while ending dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. Nor would he summon an angel to heaven by ending a first grader’s life at the hands of a gunman or sadist.  Yes, I know that theologians have spent centuries pondering such questions, but most of the serious conversations have moved beyond the simplistic reassurance that “everything happens for a reason.”

This is true in one sense. Tornado conditions are caused when different temperatures and humidity meet to form thunderclouds. Earthquakes occur when a sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust crates seismic waves. Among human beings, forces ranging from mental illness to greed to fear to a remorseless taste for imposing suffering on others can cause people to do terrible things to one another.

This is part of the involuntary bargain we make with the world just by being alive. We get to experiences the splendor of nature, the beauty of art, the balm of love and the sheer joy of existence, always with the knowledge that illness, injury, natural disaster, or pure evil can end it in an instant for ourselves or someone we love.

That is a harsh reality; so are many others. There are good people who are dealt a bad hand by fate, and bad people who live long, comfortable, privileged lives.  A small twist of fate can save or end a life; random chance is a permanent, powerful player in each of our lives, and in human history as well.

Does this mean there can be no consolation when a disaster like the Oklahoma tornado strikes? Of course not. We should celebrate every rescue; take heart from the heroism of a teacher who shielded half a dozen children with her body; honor the first responders and the volunteers who spend days and nights searching for survivors; and learn from such disasters to limit the death and destruction from the inevitable future disasters.

That’s what President Kennedy meant when he ended his 1961 inaugural address by reminding us that “here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” The consolation we seek will be found not in the wishful thinking that everything happens for a reason, but in the hardheaded determination to do what we can in an uncertain world.