The Divinity of "Shit Happens"
When I was in my early twenties, I was working loading packages at the UPS near Akron, Ohio. I was living with a roommate who also worked for UPS, as a driver (a job that we all could only aspire to attain). My family at the time, a family of odd characters, big personalities and a DNA code that saw fogginess as a mutation to be rid of, was fractured. This sister didn’t speak to that one, these sisters didn’t speak to their mom, mom was deprived of seeing her grandkids, my older brother was off drinking (whereabouts, as usual, unknown) and, my sister Sheila had been driven, through drug addiction and alcoholism (another family trait) into a life of petty prostitution. Sheila, strangely enough, the kindest, most likable and personable of my four sisters, had been living this sort of life for quite a while, and her safety and well-being were always something that rumbled below the surface of all of our lives. One night while lying in bed in my small apartment I remembered having the thought (not thinking it really, but having it) that Sheila would die in order to bring the family together. At the time, I was in the throes of my fundamentalist phase of belief, and I had little trouble thinking God was somehow speaking to me. (This tendency to think I could accurately interpret the voice of the divine was dealt a severe blow several years later when I thought God told me to tell my mother that the physical symptoms she was having were not related to cancer. She was dead within a year from ovarian cancer.) I also had, for obvious reasons, little trouble believing in sacrificial death since my whole faith was based on such a concept. Shortly after my “divine revelation” about Sheila I was diligently pulling packages from the UPS box line and loading them, each in their proper place so the driver could easily pick them for delivery, onto the big brown truck. When I exited the truck, I felt a hand touch me. Looking to my left I saw my roommate, his face of concern directed at me, but also one filled with love and empathy (or was it pity?). Without questioning what he wanted, I simply said “Is it my mom?” (I had been afraid that my mom would die since I was a child and my grandfather fell down the steps and died instantly making my once secure world fragile and prone to the often-imagined fear that spontaneous tragedy was waiting behind every tree). My roommate simply said “No” and I instinctively said “Sheila.” She was murdered by the man who profited (however little) from selling her to others. He, thinking correctly that she was trying to escape the life he had made for her, decided that she would be with no one else if not him and he stabbed her multiple times.
In the aftermath of this hideousness, my family came together, as much as emotionally challenged, nominally educated, insecure people can and, in this reuniting, we were all present, either physically or on the phone, when my mom died of cancer several years later. Now the religiously insensitive (as I was at the time) may think of my premonition of the death of Sheila as a form of divine communication or even an event ordained by God to bring about a greater good (enacted after God weighed the scales and found the job one worth pulling off). Maybe it was a sort of utilitarian bargain showing God’s wisdom or the mystery of his ways. I did actually think this for some time after Sheila’s death. I thought that Sheila’s death had a purpose as a move in a divine plan meant to reunite a family, one that most non-omniscient observers would think better left separated from one another. Her death, I thought, was a necessary salve used to heal the wounds created by a family of proud unforgiving sibling bastards who could rarely see beyond their own self-interests. Through mom’s death, (and the misinterpretation I had about the existence of her cancer) along with my earning degrees in philosophy and theology, my faith drastically changed, and, through time, I came to see my way of understanding Sheila’s tragic murder through the lens of divine providence as a way of trying to create order out of chaos. I also came to reject such nonsense and, if I am honest, to look on people who still think that way as moral reprobates who worship a God who is best seen as a moral monster.
The old bumper sticker used to say, “shit happens,” and no doubt it does. It happens all the time to the good and the evil, the rich and the poor, the humble and the haughty, yet the most interesting aspect of life is the stuff that happens after the shit is expelled. Look at the death of Jesus. To think that God caused this to happen so that some could later believe that such a thing was ordained and planned so that they could someday dance in a heavenly city with Abraham Lincoln and Dorothy Day (assuming they both made it) is clearly to believe in the worst sort of child torture imaginable. If God ordained and planned that Jesus (his son) be brutally murdered so someone could attain some sort of eternal vacation home after death (one on par with the Hampton’s but farther away) simply by believing it was accomplished for them, then I, like Camus’ character in The Plague can only say (to paraphrase) that I want no part in a divine plan that tortures children (or in this case a 33-year-old man). I, as Dostoevsky writes (again to paraphrase), would give my ticket to heaven back to this Being. But are these the only responses to the shit that happens? Is it either divine providence or atheism? God as a utilitarian reprobate or God as a fiction? I don’t think so.
Out of Sheila’s death did come a reunion of sorts for the family that, while flawed, was (and is) my own. There were moments of love and kindness. Moments like right after my mom died and I was getting in the car to drive home (the car that my brother first drove home from the hospital for me). I remember telling him I did not know what I would do, and he told me that what I would do was finish community college (I did, and then went on to get two master’s degrees and a Ph.D.). He then told me to turn on the radio to which he had cued up Bob Marley’s, “Don’t Worry About a Thing.” Before her untimely death at 58, we all began to speak, again and mom spent time with her grandkids. As she lay dying in her hospital bed, all the family was there with her (except my drunk brother who joined us on the phone to say goodbye). Good grew amid the shit that happened. This is not odd of course. After 9/11 we saw politicians sing together and I attended mass with my dad for the only time in my life (that mass, in and of itself, meant little to me, but to see that it meant something to dad did mean something to me). Examples of the good that happens after the shit falls are innumerable, but these moments are not divine in any foreordained necessary sense. There is something about suffering and pain that sometimes leads us to cling to love and unity at whatever cost. The death of Jesus was accepted by Jesus, not ordained by his Papa. It was an example of what self-sacrifice looks like (willingly but fearfully accepting death with the full sense of being abandoned by God heavy on his heart). His death was an example to us that love requires a certain amount of ego-death (and sometimes physical sacrifice), a moment where we look beyond our ego-soaked selves and begin to see others through the eyes of love. This is what happened to Ivan Ilyich as he lay dying listening to his family murmur in the background. It is what compelled Jesus to ask God to forgive his executioners. Suffering focuses our minds on love for others and allows us to see them as us, but the suffering is just what is, it isn’t what God ordained or planned or contrived as his master’s thesis in divinity school. The real divinity comes when we smell the shit, accept its fragrance as repugnant and real and yet, in the stinky mess we turn toward the suffering in love and sacrifice to others. We try and help wash the stink off of their bodies or maybe just hug them in the midst of the stench. We do this because we will be them someday, and, if we are lucky, someone will join us in our own pile of shit. That is divine; that is God.