A version of this article appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in August 2012.
One of the challenges of a Humanistic philosophy of life is that we sometimes answer the wrong question. When terrible things happen we often hear, “How could this happen?” Our first impulse is to respond to the how—what factors led to this accident, how can we avoid such tragedy in the future, or at least how can we respond to it better if such events are unavoidable. And answering how is very important, the key to learning from experience and greater safety in the future. But answering how at that exact moment is not necessarily responding to the human need being expressed.
An important subtlety to the art of communication is to hear the question behind the question. What the anguished are really asking is, “WHY did this happen? Why did this tragedy take place?” Traditional religion offers a wide variety of answers:
- Karmic payback for evil done in a past life, or pre-payment for advancement in the next
- Punishment for sin, either individual or collective (i.e., religious Jews died in the Holocaust because of secular Jews’ transgressions)
- A test of faith, likely to be rewarded in a future life (ha-olam ha-ba/the world to come in rabbinic thought)
- Part of a greater plan that is good, even if our limited perspective cannot appreciate it (the implied answer of the Biblical book of Job).
None of these answers satisfy the Humanistically inclined, since either the suffering is not fair compared to the supposed transgressions, or else the whole system seems unjust, with one person suffering for the punishment or benefit of another. 6 million deaths is a ghastly overreaction to eating trayf (non-kosher food), and why should the pious suffer because of another’s sin, or to test the faith of other religious people?
We certainly understand from where this question arises. Humanity’s instinctive impulse to look for causes has been the key to scientific knowledge and a real understanding of how the world works. And most of the time, the desire to find why the sun rises (or seems to rise as the Earth turns) works to our advantage.
This time, however, it’s just the wrong question. When tragedy happens, there is no why, no cosmic reason behind personal pain. Tragedy happens because life is not a script with a happy ending. Gravity and plate tectonics do not care about one’s moral worth. Humanity should care, and should strive to counteract the indifference of the universe. But that will still not answer the “why.”
What we need is a two-pronged approach. For the long term, the more one becomes comfortable with a worldview without “why,” the less one feels the need to demand reasons from a mute universe. Instinct and impulse are not fate. To respond to the immediate need, however, we need a more direct approach. We can honestly respond to another’s grief with, “We’ll probably never know” (which is true), or even more powerfully, “We can be supportive by our presence.”
Some 1,600 years ago, Rav Papa said, “agra d’bei tmia shtikuta” (the merit of attending a house of mourning is in its silence). Sometimes the best answer to suffering is silence. And loving presence.