Today is my birthday, and forgive me if I don’t really feel like celebrating it. I don’t really feel like being in a celebratory mood, and it has nothing to do with circumstances in my own life, but rather, situational pain in the lives of others. Yesterday, two bits of sobering news reached my ears.
The first was the relayed message of a teenage girl attempting suicide. This is the third or fourth such similar story I’ve heard in the last several months. Sometimes the kids are homosexual and can’t take the bullying anymore; sometimes they come from broken families whose fractured patriarchs or matriarchs seem intent on making life for their already-troubled teens more hellish than it already is; and sometimes it’s just the all-consuming cultural pressure of being a teenager in Western society. It’s too much. So a collection of pills, a noose, or a bullet become the solution.
The second story was passed on to me by a dear friend of mine. For some, it is already old news. For me, it was not. I invite you to read the story of Hamza al-Khateeb, age thirteen—slowly and lengthily tortured and dismembered before mercifully (if we can use that word) being killed. Fair warning that the story itself is graphic. While there are no videos of his body included (though there are links to that if you want), the simple written account of this young boy’s demise is difficult enough to stomach.
This is the world we live in. Whether it’s teenagers trying to kill themselves or insurgents slowly mutilating little boys, this is our world—full of pain, full of things we can all agree are “not right.” Somewhere today there is a mother and father in the hospital trying to make sense of the situation that eventually led to their daughter’s decision to try and take her own life (thankfully she did not succeed and is on the mend right now as we speak; keep her in your prayers). Somewhere in Syria there is a mother and father ripped to shreds by grief, anger, and disbelief after having their precious boy’s body dropped off at their doorstep.
Someone tortured their son.
I do not have children yet, nor am I old enough to pretend I can imagine what it’s like to hurt for your child, to love them so fiercely you’d do anything to protect them. But I have worked with and dearly love enough kids over the years who are that age to where I can somewhat envision how pulling back a sheet and seeing my boy’s brutalized body would be a horror so debilitating I would fall to the ground unconscious (and Hamza’s father did just that). The indignation, the hopelessness, the searing sadness would be inconsolable.
So what do you do with this? A few years ago a day like yesterday would have culminated in me shaking my fist at the sky and saying in anger something akin to, “God, where are you?” But I’ve moved past that. Some could try and reopen that debate here, and it merits discussion, but it is not what interests me today. Because as much as some people might like to dig into a gritty theological conundrum over coffee, that won’t bring Hamza back, won’t wind back the clock to before that sweet girl tried to kill herself.
Oddly enough you have to try and accept that these sorts of things happen. Don’t misread: I am not saying those things are good, that we should just let them be, and that their occurrence shouldn’t stir up in us a righteous anger to try and make them stop. But what I do have to eventually accept is the fact that I am here and Hamza’s family is on the other side of the world in Syria. I am here while the family struggling with the suicide attempt is more than eight hundred miles away from me. I can’t really do anything for either situation. Not right now at least. And that’s when I feel helpless, when I feel inadequate, when I feel frustrated. Putting on funny hats, singing, and blowing out candles then seems very inappropriate in the face of such emotion.
And yet last night my parents and I sat around at the dinner table cracking jokes, laughing, and having a good time with each other reminiscing about when my brothers and me were all little and still at the infantile stage of constantly vomiting. In the middle of laughing until I had tears in my eyes, I stopped and thought, “Is this okay?” While Hamza’s family is paralyzed by grief, we’re sitting around a meal . . . laughing. Or I had this thought, too: Tomorrow my family and I will go out to eat to celebrate my birthday at a restaurant where the bill for the meal will most likely be more than most peoples’ entire monthly wages. How is this okay?
So where does consolation come? As mentioned: eventually in the realization that this is just how life is. It may sound odd, but a painting and corresponding poem by W. H. Auden capture this sentiment better than anything else I’ve come across. Both can be found neatly packaged at this link, and I encourage you to take a look at the painting and read the poem (it’s short).
Essentially here’s what both pieces of art are saying. Tragedy has just occurred in that someone has died (in this case, Icarus), and yet everybody is just continuing to go about his daily business. The ship will not stop going into the harbor, and the plowman will keep plowing. Horrible things happen, and yet life keeps on going. While this painting and poem may, at first, come across as a trite summation, it’s not. It’s simply putting forth a truth we all already know, but don’t necessarily enjoy thinking about.
A couple of my friends recently got married. They’re on their honeymoon right now, loving life and loving each other. Hamza was being tortured at the same time they were honeymooning. It’s not that they’re in the wrong for celebrating their good fortune while someone else is meeting his demise. Separated by space, language, and a myriad other factors, Hamza’s death doesn’t affect their lives other than how they feel when they read the story.
And while that’s just how things go, it bothers me tremendously because I usually find myself involuntarily taking on other peoples’ burdens. I find my heart aching for Hamza’s family in a way that might even be deemed excessive given that I can’t do anything from Dallas, Texas. When I lived in Nashville a friend of mine and I were talking about taking on other peoples’ burdens, and he mentioned how something Jesus said liberated him from that a long time ago. I don’t remember the passage in Scripture, but essentially Christ says, “That’s my job. That’s what I came to do.” My friend then noted how he didn’t have to do that, how Christ would come in and do that which he could never do on his own. That sounded nice to me at first, and I do think there’s some truth in that approach, but I also remember the other Bible verse: “Bear each other’s burdens.”
So now I’m back to square one, I suppose. But as it was pointed out to me in wisdom this morning, there are people already doing that. This family of the girl who tried to kill herself? They have their community wrapping their arms around them, loving them, caring for them, running errands for them, or simply stopping their own lives to match the now bruised rhythm of this family’s days. It was also pointed out to me how even though I can’t bear the burden of Hamza’s family, there are people there right now—physically with them—sitting shiva with them, mourning, grieving, sharing in all that wracks this family’s heart. They are doing that because they can. I am not doing that because I can’t.
And that’s okay.
There is some release in that, but I’ll be honest and admit there’s not much. But it’s enough to keep the day going. Plus I also keep in mind that right now may not be a Hamza-esque tumultuous situation for me, but that’s not how it will always be. I should keep in perspective that my time will come. What goes around comes around. I’m currently reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and one theme Betty Smith constantly pounds home is how the pain of life makes you stronger. It’s good to encounter it, to meet it head on and face it. She especially examines how this applies to girls born in poverty in the years before World War I. Good to encounter, yes, but not easy at the time. But it will take place. Tragedy will strike for me. I don’t know what it will be. Perhaps I will have leukemia in a year or two. Perhaps someone I love dearly will die (not perhaps; that will happen at some point—only a matter of when). Perhaps I, too, will lose a child. Perhaps I will meet financial ruin and dwindle into poverty. Perhaps I will be in a war. I don’t know. But at some point sunshine and peace will return to Hamza’s family while my life will meet turmoil. The tables will turn—not in a just sort of way necessarily, not in a paying-my-dues sort of way, but the situation will simply turn. And Hamza’s family will be sitting around the table laughing and reminiscing with each other while I’m here in the United States sitting in a chair numbed by the horrifying occurrences that have just befallen me. That’s simply how it is. It’s not wrong, it’s not right, it’s just life.
And today’s my birthday, which is the celebration of life—an odd thing to commemorate when so much death is everywhere. This is why the more and more I read the book of Ecclesiastes, the more I marvel at Solomon’s wisdom. His conclusion, “There is a time for everything,” says more than perhaps he even knew.
And so tonight I will celebrate my birthday, albeit a tad begrudgingly. I am thankful for the life I have because, as those two bits of news I received yesterday reconfirmed, I’m not guaranteed it for very long. There’s no telling what is coming over the horizon. Some snippets of the future will contain peace; others will not.
Tonight there will be laughter, good times, and excellent food, and that’s just how today will unfold. Enjoy the good times while they’re here, for tomorrow may bring sorrow. Right now two families are on my heart because of their great sorrow, and while their pain is not my own, my heart aches for them just the same, and their plight I consistently bring to the foot of the throne upon which sits a Father who promises he makes all things new.
I sure hope he does.