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The Boston Globe

The Road Back

"There was once a man in the land of Uz called Job: a sound and honest man who feared God and shunned evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him." So begins the famous meditation on the mystery of suffering. Has it ever seemed so current?

A messenger comes to Job and tells him, "Your sons and daughters were at their meal and drinking wine at their elder brother's home when suddenly from the wilderness a gale sprang up, and it battered all four corners of the house which fell in on the young people. They are dead. I alone escaped to tell you." In South Asia, reports indicate that up to one-third of the deaths are of children.

Job loses everything -- his possessions, abode, reputation, health, and easy faith. But the evil that befalls him is embodied most crucially in the destruction of his pretty ones. Children are the future, the very pillar of time, the measure of meaning in a rootless cosmos. With his children gone, the assault comes fully to Job. "Terrors attack him in broad daylight and at night a whirlwind sweeps him off. An east wind picks him up and drags him away, snatching him up from his homeland. . . . A flood of water overwhelms him."

Job is unforgotten not because of what he suffered but because of his refusal to respond with curses and quitting. He rejects the possibility that the human condition amounts to mere bedlam, nothing more. He condemns the injustice of every further twist of his fate, and therefore justice itself becomes his defining affirmation. His nobility lies in the simple act of insisting, in the face of unearned suffering, that things were not meant to be like this. A moral order emerges from his stand against otherwise victorious disorder, and what sets Job apart is the discovery, then, that moral order is what counts.

Across South Asia today, Job lives in the survivors of the tsunami. They protest against the supreme indifference of nature by caring more than ever. They care for the living, and they care for the dead. Grief becomes a way, literally, of life. Legions of the empathetic, meanwhile, attempt to rescue, heal, console, and rebuild. No curses. No quitting. Just clean water, sanitation, burying the remains, naming the disappeared. Dispersed members of the human family, on hearing of this disaster, experience it as happening to them.

A vast sense of interruption has fallen upon the globe. Normalcies of time and place are violated by the instantaneous character of the destruction and its geographic scale. An ancient dread of the catastrophic springs alive in every heart. If the earth itself is the enemy of humanity, where is the friend?


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And other questions impose themselves. Why does the universal outpouring of concern for the victims of the tsunami stand in such contrast to the equally universal resignation to such mass victimhood when it comes from war? The dead in Iraq, to take only America's example, may also be counted by now in six figures. Why is Operation Iraqi Freedom not recognized in Washington as the tsunami it is for those who even today are being blown away?

Job was defined by his demand for an answer. How is unearned suffering to be explained? "But tell me, where does wisdom come from? Where is understanding to be found?"

Uninterrupted, humans can accommodate themselves to the sorrows of mortality, but such complacency can be swept away in a tide that refuses to break, forcing the questions: How? Why? But alas, as Job learns, "the road to wisdom is still unknown to man, not to be found in the land of the living. `It is not in me,' says the Abyss. `Nor here,' replies the Sea."

Where is the meaning in the deaths of all those children? How can such worlds of work, love, creativity, and invention -- all those coastal villages, all those tidy houses -- be simply crushed like so many matchsticks? If every human life is of ultimate worth, how can so many once beautiful bodies end up in pits?

In the Book of Job, the answer comes "from the heart of the tempest." And the answer is that there is no answer. The tsunami wrack line is as much of mystery as of misery. But, as the world's response nevertheless makes clear, we needn't understand to care, nor find meaning in this suffering to denounce its injustice. Having the hurt ones in mind and finding ways to help them are what matter now.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll a former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel "The Cloister" (Doubleday). Among other works are: "House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power" and "Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age." His memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us," won the National Book Award. His forthcoming book (2021) is "The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul." He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.

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