I experienced the last chapter of Aleksandar Hemom’s memoir like a punch to the gut. Or, more accurately, like preparing in slow motion for a fist that finally and devastatingly makes contact. I finished the book and walked around the living room shaking my head, sighing loudly, trying unsuccessfully to find my breath. The Book of My Lives is a wonderful book; the chapters function as essays documenting Hemon’s previous life in Sarajevo and his current one in Chicago. But that last chapter…
“The Aquarium” was originally published as an essay in The New Yorker and in it Hemon tells how his very young daughter contracted a rare and deadly form of cancer. The reader need not be a parent to imagine the terror experienced by the author and his wife, though images of my own son’s three frightening trips to the hospital flickered across my memory as I read Hemon’s precise descriptions of hospital beds, medications, and, of course, the fear.
And then, in a paragraph halfway through the chapter, the author writes about the annoying platitudes offered by acquaintances who weren’t sure what to say in the presence of such suffering. I read these sentences sympathetically; though I’ve not known pain anywhere near what this family experienced, I share their distaste for words and sentences that explain tritely the unexplainable. But then I came to these two sentences and had to set the book down:
And we stayed away from anyone who, we feared, might offer us the solace of that supreme platitude, God. The hospital chaplain was prohibited from coming anywhere near us.
A good friend of ours has been working as a hospital chaplain this year and the thought of her offering God to anyone as a platitude is too much to believe. But that’s not really the point, is it? For Hemon, whose religious antagonism surfaces only occasionally throughout the book, God is a platitude: a meaningless bunch of words dressed up to sound spiritually relevant. We don’t get to know why he and his wife feel this way, though I’m not sure it matters; they are not alone in their distaste for God-talk, especially when applied like a cheap bandaid to a gaping wound.
The thing is, I share a bit of the author’s antipathy. Over the past three years I’ve spent time in the emergency room three times with members of our family. During those uncertain moments I’ve been glad to know (and be reminded) that friends and family have been praying for us. But that’s about all I’ve wanted to hear. I don’t need an explanation for these too-frequent emergency room trips and any such explanation, no matter how theologically nuanced, would have been supremely annoying.
Why is it that people like Hemon have experienced God as “that supreme platitude”? In part it must be that we who claim to know God have represented him as such. In moments of suffering – in hospital rooms or in the aftermaths of bombings and tornadoes – Christians often say too much. We offer explanations that may have some Biblical heft but are tone-deaf to the experience of profound suffering. When our mouths should be shut we instead fill the disquieting air with thin platitudes.
The sad irony is that Christians have access to more humane ways of encountering tragedy, whether our own or another’s. Throughout the Bible we observe God’s people lament during their moments of suffering. In place of quick explanations or claims to speak on God’s behalf, they grieve, mourn, and question. Job’s friends are the first to offer platitudes disguised as spiritual wisdom and they are eventually silenced by the God whose actions will not be neatly explained. On the other hand, the Psalms, the textbook for prayer, are filled with lament and silence. In the Bible, the one who interrogates God about suffering comes off looking far better than those who try to explain God to the suffering.
Of course none of this may change even a little Hemon’s assumption that God is nothing but the supreme platitude. But his belief and, I infer, the experiences behind it, remind that God is best represented in moments of suffering not through any spiritual platitude but through our lament, sometimes spoken and often not.