“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
When Life Gives You Lemons…
What do you do when life isn’t what you expect? Despite not feeling prepared for, let alone told about this harsh and impending reality, by now I’ve learned this is bound to happen to each of us, eventually. I’m not claiming to know the answer, because I don’t think there is one. And I’m not claiming to know something that’s relevant for every person, in every circumstance, because, after all, my experience and perspective is still quite limited. But what I do think is that you first have to stop. You have to turn some stuff off. You have to cry out loudly and offensively. You have to listen and really hear your life breaking and changing. And then, after an appropriate amount of time (and not necessarily when you feel ready), you have to do what’s next.
Listening helps you know what that is. Close friends and family help you know. Particulars and logistics of life can help, too. A hunch. A dream. A vacation. An image that you can’t get out of your head. You won’t get to know the exact story while you’re living it – that’s not the point. The point is to live a story of becoming, of asking good questions; a progressing, a layering of risks and adventures and worthy nexts. Don’t do it alone. And don’t be dumb. But don’t get stuck where you are either.
This has come to be my understanding of the book of Job. Job is not about why innocent people suffer. It is not about getting what one deserves, or some cosmic trial. The book of Job is about discovering good questions, and those, frankly, are not good ones. The book of Job is about responding to the reality that life will give you (and other people) lemons. Between the contours of its narrative and poetry we are reminded that The LORD God of Israel is a relational God; a God who says, in the midst of Israel’s wandering, suffering, and disobedience, “I want to go with you.” To be human is to ask questions. And to follow God is to discover which are the the good ones, the ones that bring life and becoming and hope and peace. To be human is not to demand (or to find) answers. And to be God is not to give them.
There are plenty of tempting questions that will enslave you, get you stuck in a pattern of retributive thought and action. What if? Why me? Why not me? How can I get back to what used to be? Where is the status quo? Where’s normal? When will this be over? And while forgiving of these fallen, short-sided questions – the selfish questions that demand a definitive response – God is in the patient process of shaping and molding our questions towards more compelling and fulfilling lives and relationships (with each other and with him). What’s next? Will I choose to grow in the current circumstance? Who’s with me? How will I be different next time? What do I want? Who am I becoming? Compelling lives are lived out of compelling questions. God sits with us, gently nudging us toward the good questions that will lead to life and to the fulfillment of our humanity.
Below is the book of Job transcribed in mostly question form. I hoped to draw out the complexity and depth of the compelling questions that Job asks while juxtaposing them to the dull, flatness of his friends’ barren questions and automated responses. I anticipated discovering the utter humanness of Job’s questions, and the disappointing deadness of his friends’ answers. The wisdom of God teaches us that humans are most free when they are doing what they were created to do. If humanity was created to ask good questions, to seek, to become, to process, and to discover, then I hoped to find an almost unnamable, human quality in the movement of Job’s story. Good questions expand, allowing for the continued expression of a journey; answers only lead to dead-ends.
[The center justified text are Job’s words, the right justified text are his friends’ words, and the left justified text are God’s words.]
The Book of Job:
Where did you come from? (1:6)
Surely there is no one like him on earth. (1:8)
Does he revere you for nothing? (1:9)
Naked I came from my mother’s womb;
naked I will return there.
The LORD has given; the LORD has taken;
bless the LORD’s name. (1:21)
Where have you come from? (2:2)
Skin for skin
people will give up everything they have
in exchange for their lives. (2:4)
Are you still clinging to your integrity?
Curse God, and die. (2:9)
Why didn’t I die at birth,
come forth from the womb and die?
Why did knees receive me
and breasts let me nurse? (2:11-12)
Or why wasn’t I like a buried miscarried infant? (2:16)
Why is light given to the person whose way is hidden,
whom God has fenced in? (2:23)
Who can hold words back? (4:2)
What innocent person has ever perished? (4:7)
Can a human be more righteous than God? (4:17)
Call out. Will anyone answer you? (5:1)
Surely trouble doesn’t come from dust. (5:6)
Is my strength that of rocks,
my flesh bronze? (6:12)
Are friends loyal to the one who despairs? (6:14)
What do your condemnations accomplish? (6:25)
Is there wrong on my tongue? Can my mouth not recognize disaster? (6:30)
Am I sea or the Sea Monster that you place me under guard? (7:12)
I reject life. I don’t want to live long;
Leave me alone, for my days are empty. (7:16)
What are human beings? (7:17)
Why not forgive my sin, overlook my iniquity? (7:21)
Does God pervert justice? (8:3)
Does a reed flourish without water? (8:11)
How can anyone be innocent before God? (9:2)
Who can resist him and prosper? (9:4)
Who shakes the earth from its place? (9:6)
Who can say to him: What are you doing? (9:12)
Who calls God to meet me? (9:19)
Why have I tried so hard in vain? (9:29)
Tell me what you are accusing me of doing? (10:2)
Do you have physical eyes?
Do you see like a human? (10:4)
Why did you let me emerge from the womb? (10:18)
Will you mock and not be put to shame? (11:3)
If you make your mind resolute
and throw out the sin in your hands, (11:13-14)
You will forget trouble. (11:16)
I’m a joke. (12:4)
Who hasn’t known that the LORD’s hand did this? (12:9)
Will you speak injustice for God? Will you speak deceit on his behalf? (13:7)
I know that I’m innocent. (13:18)
Why hide your face from me and consider me your enemy? (13:24)
Look away from us that we may rest. (14:6)
But a human dies and lies there; a person expires, and where is he? (14:10)
If people die, will they live again? (14:14)
You are truly making religion ineffective
and restraining meditation before God. (15:4)
What do you understand that isn’t among us? (15:9)
All the days of the wicked are painful. (15:20)
All of you are sorry comforters. (16:2)
If I speak, my pain is not eased; if I hold back, what have I lost? (16:6)
Now God has surely worn me out. (16:7)
Who else is willing to make an agreement? (17:3)
Where then is my hope? (17:15)
Will they go down with me; will we descend together? (17:16)
Would you all stop talking. Try to understand. (18:2)
The light of the wicked goes out. (18:5)
This is the place of the one who doesn’t know God. (18:21)
How long will you crush me with words? (19:2)
Have I really gone astray? (19:4)
I shout – but there is no justice. (19:7)
Those who know me have forgotten me. (19:14)
Why do you pursue me like God does, always hungry for my flesh? (19:22)
After my skin has been torn apart, then, I’ll see God. (19:26)
You should know that there is judgment. (19:29)
The rejoicing of the wicked is short. (20:5)
They will disappear like a dream. (20:8)
Let God rain punishing blows on them. (20:23)
Heaven exposes their guilt; earth opposes them. (20:27)
Are my complaints against another human? (21:4)
Isn’t their well-being the work of their own hands? (21:16)
They act and who can avenge them? (21:31)
Can a human being be useful to God? (22:2)
Isn’t your wickedness massive? (22:5)
Get along well with God and something good will come. (22:21)
Then you will take pleasure in the Almighty. (22:26)
That I could know how to find him. (23:3)
Would he contend with me through brute force? (23:6)
He is of one mind; who can reverse it? (23:13)
I’m not annihilated by darkness;
he has hidden deep darkness from me. (23:17)
Why can’t those who know him see his days? (24:1)
God assigns no blame. (24:12)
They are humbled then gathered in like everyone else. (24:24)
How can a person be innocent before God? (25:4)
The grave is naked before God. (26:6)
Who can understand his thunderous power? (26:14)
Until my dying day, I won’t give up my integrity. (27:5)
Will God hear their cries when distress comes to them? (27:9)
Why this empty talk? (27:12)
Wisdom, where can it be found? (28:12)
Where is the place of understanding? (28:20)
The fear of the LORD is wisdom. (28:28)
Oh, that life was like it used to be, like days when God watched over me. (29:2)
Now my life is poured out on me. (30:16)
I know you will return me to death, the house appointed for all the living. (30:23)
Surely he won’t strike someone in ruins if in distress he cries out. (30:24)
Doesn’t he see my ways, count all my steps? (31:4)
Didn’t the same one fashion us in the womb? (31:15)
Job’s words are complete. (31:40)
I won’t be partial to anyone,
otherwise my maker would quickly whisk me away. (32:21-22)
Lay out your case before me and take a stand. (33:5)
Why do you contend with him? (33:13)
God rewards a person’s righteousness. (33:26)
Be quiet and I will teach you wisdom. (33:33)
Let’s determine among ourselves what’s good. (34:4)
I wish Job would be tested to the limit
because he adds rebellion to his sin. (34:36-37)
If you’ve sinned, how have you affected God? (35:6)
God certainly doesn’t respond to a deceitful cry. (35:13)
Don’t turn to evil because you’ve chosen it over affliction. (36:21)
God is inaccessible due to his power;
who is a teacher like him? (36:22)
Whether for punishment or for kindness, God makes it all happen. (37:13)
Stop and ponder God’s mighty deeds. (37:14)
Where were you? (38:4)
Do you know?
Will the one who disputes with the Almighty correct him? (40:2)
What can I answer you? (40:4)
Would you deem me guilty? (40:8)
Only his maker can come near him with a sword. (40:19)
I have indeed spoken about things I don’t understand,
wonders beyond my comprehension. (42:3)
My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I find comfort on dust and ashes. (42:5-6)
You haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job. (42:7)
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrance Malik and nominated for Best Picture in 2012, is a poetic meditation of life and loss, captured in the midst of beautiful and slow images of creation. The film tells the story of a family – a mom, a dad, and three boys – yet from the opening scene we are placed in the midst of an unfolding tragedy: the death of the middle son. While never sure exactly where in the timeline of the story you are located, Malik moves through all the stages of creation, new life, growth, sin, pain, and death, capturing this on both the cosmic scale of the entire world and also the micro-scale of one particular family’s story. Through juxtaposing scenes of images, colors, and sound, the simplicity of the plot flows from tragedy to creation, from innocence to experience, from grief to surrender.
The narrative unfolds through the alternating perspectives of the mother, the father, and their eldest son: How do they each respond to the death of their son/brother? How do they grieve and suffer and heal? The film doesn’t ask why they suffer, but reveals how they suffer – the mother as a reflection of grace, the father a reflection of nature, and their eldest son struggling to discover himself in the midst of that tension. An occasional friend chimes in, there are echoes from a pastor’s sermon, but mostly you move through the tension inside each character in their relationship with each other and with a nameless God.
The opening image of the film is the text of Job 38: 4, 7. This situates and grounds the unfolding narrative that would otherwise lose you in its random abstraction. Throughout the film, each character whispers questions to an assumed, but unnamed, God. While strange, non-linear, and mysterious, the film captures purity, gently inviting a particular interpretation of humanness through suffering. Much like life, it is a film you must surrender to in order to receive from.
In this next section of poetry, I took the whispers and the questions from the film and organized them in a way that I think discovers a hidden meaning and depth, while also transposing it into a form similar to that of Job. The left justified text are the character’s questions whispered to God, the center justified text are their statements whispered to God, and the right justified text are the questions and statements of the characters to each other.
Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?
While the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted.
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts all things.
Nature only wants to please itself.
Love shines through all things.
No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
I will be true to you whatever comes.
He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?
How did you come to me?
What shape? What disguise?
How did I lose you?
Did I wander?
Was I false to you?
Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know?
Who are we to you?
Be quiet my soul.
My son. Hear us.
Life by life,
I search for you.
My hope. My child.
You spoke to me through her
From the sky, the trees.
Before I knew I loved you,
Believed in you.
When did you first touch my heart?
See this line? Don’t cross it, you understand?
Do you love your father?
Who do you love the most?
Mother, let me go.
Could it happen to anyone?
Nobody talks about it.
Where do you live?
Are you watching me?
I want to know what you are.
I want to see what you see.
Do you trust in God?
Are your friends and family your security?
Was he bad?
Will you die too?
You’re not that old yet.
Where were you? You let a boy die.
Will you let anything happen?
Why’s he hurt us? Our father.
Do you trust your father?
Just have the confidence to trust that what your father says is right.
Don’t explain, just nod yes or no.
Help each other.
Love everyone. Every leaf.
Every ray of light.
What do you have to be afraid of?
I can’t talk to you. Don’t look at me.
What have I started?
What have I done?
How do I get back? Where they are.
Is your family not good enough for you?
You will not call me dad, you will call me father.
It’s your house, you can kick me out whenever you want to.
You’d like to kill me.
Dad, where was he born?
Please God kill him.
Let him die.
Get him out of here.
What I want to do I can’t do.
I do what I hate.
What was it you showed me?
I didn’t know how to name you then.
But I see it was you.
Always you were calling me.
Father, Father, always
You wrestle inside me.
Always you wield.
The only way to be happy is to love.
Unless you love your life will flash by.
Do good to them.
Brother, keep us. Guide us.
Till the end of time.
I give him to you. I give you my son.
A Serious Man
Aside from its grounding in the storyline of Job, A Serious Man could not be more different from Tree of Life. Nominated for Best Picture in 2010, A Serious Man tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family as the father moves through a series of misfortunes: his wife wants a divorce (and a Gett) so that she can re-marry their mutual friend, one of his students tries to bribe him and then threatens him with a lawsuit, his neighbor is attempting to build a shed on his yard, he has no money, gets into a car accident, and someone is sending degrading mail to his tenure committee. His son, preparing for his Bar Mitvah is a pot-smoking annoyance, his daughter is at the height of teenage anger, and his brother, who is staying with the family, ends up getting arrested for visiting a whorehouse. Friends offer totally helpless, irrelevant advice and beg him to see the rabbi (whose wisdom doesn’t fare much better) while he desperately tries to get his feet back on some solid ground.
Just as things are beginning to turn – his wife’s lover tragically dies hinting at a reunification of their marriage, the son (though high) makes it through his Torah portion, he receives promising news regarding his tenure decision – a massive tornado looms on the horizon, moving in to destroy the life of their entire town.
This is a quirky film by the Coen brothers. Slow-paced and almost tedious it speaks to the absurd and arbitrary nature of misfortune, highlighting the inability and failure of each character to participate in it. There is no mourning, no comforting, no suffering. But it is painful. The blindness of the characters is blatant and shameful as you find yourself in the midst of their selfish, compassionless tactics and empty words of counsel. And in the end, it doesn’t even seem to matter because nature rolls in and determines everyone’s fate as equal in the face of destruction.
In this section of poetry I put all the questions and puzzlements of the father in the middle of the page with the responses and advice of all the other characters on the right side. I think this draws out the absurdity and complete lack of insight, congruency, and compassion that gets assigned to seemingly undeserved misfortune. Again, it’s portrayed in a form similar to Job.
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.
What have I done?
I haven’t done anything.
What’s going on?
Accept the mystery.
Sometimes these things aren’t meant to be.
It’s an opportunity to learn how things really are.
Have you talked to the rabbi?
Everything I thought was one way turns out to be another.
I don’t know which end is up.
Just remember how to see him in the world.
See these things as expressions of God’s will.
You don’t have to like it.
Something is terribly wrong.
I didn’t do anything.
Is it wrong to complain?
I don’t know where it all leaves me.
I can’t go back.
What was my life before?
What does it all mean?
Is Hashem trying to tell me we are all one?
How does God speak to us?
Through the teeth of a Goy’s mouth.
What does it mean?
Where’s the answer?
Or is there even a question?
We can’t know everything.
It sounds like you don’t know anything.
Why even tell me the story?
Questions are like a toothache.
You feel them for a while and then they go away.
Hashem doesn’t owe us anything.
Why does he make us feel the questions if he doesn’t give us any answers?
What’s going on?
Have you talked to the rabbi?
The uncertainty principle.
It proves we can never really know what’s going on.
(You will be responsible for this on the midterm.)
All my problems are perception.
I am not an evil man.
I’ve tried to be a serious man. You know?
I’ve tried. I need help.
When the truth is found to be lies.
And all the hope within you dies.
Suffering is living in the gap between what life was and what you think it will (or should) be. It is living in the mocking absence of previous blessing. This is the crux of the book of Job, told especially in chapters 29 and 30: “For I awaited good, but evil came; I expected light, but gloom arrived.” (30:26) The book of Job is about what to do and how to be in relationship with God in this place. And because much of life involves finding yourself there, the book of Job is about what it means to be human.
In exploring this concept through the films, in sitting in an image-based interpretation of Job’s story, and in reflecting on my own life, I’m discovering that the only thing to consistently surface are the questions, a lack of answers, and then even more questions. Even in the way it’s laid out on the page, I see Job asking so many questions and I see a total emptiness on the left side, God’s side, of the page. And when God does appear he only adds more questions to what’s there. Somehow, that’s enough for Job to live in the gap of loss and hope; to accept and move through suffering while still in relationship with his God.
Next, by stepping out of the plot of the films, I discovered this unlikely, startling movement and growth through the questions. The characters end in very different places than they started, but it’s revealed by a certain surrendering to, or perhaps layering of, the questions themselves. The questions don’t go away, but they don’t stay the same either. The mother in Tree of Life wonders if her son was always in God’s hands and ends by giving up her son (who had already left her). The son ends his quest for God by asking to follow. In A Serious Man every piece of counsel is absolutely pitiful in the face of true brokenness. God, or Hashem, is an absent figure in the film that ends with a sense of utter and arbitrary hopelessness. It isn’t the answers that bring hope or conclusion or peace to any of the three narratives. It is God’s presence in asking more questions, new questions, and reframing the questions of his people so that they stand – still broken, hurt, and healing – on different ground.
What emerges is a picture of life that is question building; it’s a picture of questions creating and binding relationship, movement, and growth. That to be human is to ask questions. And to suffer is to ask questions. And to sit with those who are suffering is to ask questions. And, finally, to be God is to ask questions that reshape our own. This molding of our questions may feel like punishment – it creates pain of all kinds: heartbreak, grief, mourning, confusion – but it is really a means of divine healing. God shapes our demands into questions and he steers our bad questions into good ones, all the while intent on making us more human.
Job teaches us that to speak about God correctly is to speak about things we don’t understand (42:3). And the only way to speak of things we don’t understand is through questions. The wicked, those who refuse questions and demand answers, will disappear, their lives will become hidden. Not out of God’s spite, but because answers lead only to dead-ends and death. Job survives, his fortune and blessing returns, because he asks questions and is content to live with more of them. He agrees to find life on the “dust and ashes” of God’s lack of answers.
In my suffering, in the gap between what was and what will be, I find myself holding loosely to these questions, willing and ready to have them molded and transformed by God, however painful that may be. So what? What’s the point? Why did I leave? What in the world do I expect to happen here that will make any difference or provide any sort of clarity? Am I actually going somewhere? Am I almost there? And how will I know when I find it? Is anyone going with me? Isn’t life just an amalgamated string of new ‘years’, new starts, and next steps? To what end? Doesn’t the hard reality of life (and basically the entire book of Ecclesiastes) tell us that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” that it’s all “vapor” or “chasing after the wind”? How do I make the lemonade out of that?