My family disowned me.
A pit awaited anyone speaking well of me,
While he who was uttering defamation of me forged ahead.
One who relayed base things about me had a god for his help.
For the one who said, “What a pity about him!” death came early.
The one of no help, his life became charmed
I had no one to go at my side, nor saw I a champion.
They parceled my possessions among the riffraff…
That’s not Job talking. It’s from a text dubbed the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” written in ancient Babylon — and brought to you by way of Benjamin F. Foster’s excellent compilation of texts, “From Distant Days: Myths, Tales and Poetry from Ancient Mesopotamia.” Perhaps there’s an irony that such exquisite writing about suffering comes from the land now known as Iraq.
There are a number of texts concerning suffering from that ancient place and time and, indeed, all places and all times. All come down to a basic truth: In the diner of life, sometimes circumstance dons an apron and serves you a shit sandwich. You don’t deserve the shit sandwich and you don’t want it, but it’s what you’re given, nonetheless.
In the aforementioned poem, a wealthy man is left with nothing by the whim of the God Marduk. Eventually, fraught with poverty and disease, he is given respite by the goddess Sarpanitum, who intercedes with her husband Marduk. The sufferer undergoes a ritual of ordeal, wins Marduk’s favor and gains back all he has lost. If it sounds familiar, it’s essentially the story of Job, without the betting game Yahweh plays with his prosecuting attorney-cum-angel, later known as Satan.
There are other texts from Babylon that address the shit sandwich phenomenon. Another one, dubbed by Foster “The Babylonian Theodicy,” consists of a debate between two friends on divine justice, in a world like ours where the 1 percent can get away with anything and, to use the words in Foster’s preface, “poverty is considered a crime.” The sufferer is bitter about the nature of the world, and his friend is the “chin up! Everything’s as it’s meant to be. You just need to pray!” type that you really want to whack with a shoe sole.
It’s all very good, and I hardly know which part to quote. Here are some words from our sufferer:
Pay attention, my friend, learn my next parry,
Consider the well-chosen diction of my speech.
They extol the words of an important man who is accomplished in murder,
They denigrate the powerless who have committed no crime.
They esteem truthful the wicked to whom truth is abhorrent,
They reject the truthful man who heeds the will of god.
They fill the oppressor’s strongroom with refined gold,
They empty the beggar’s larder of his provisions.
They shore up the tyrant whose all is crime,
They ruin the weak, they oppress the powerless.
And as for me, without means, a parvenu harasses me.
Interestingly, it’s this last speech that actually convinces the shiny happy friend: “You know, you’re right. It really is
a shit sandwich.”
What I find comforting, strangely enough, is the capriciousness of it: You can do everything right, yes, and still find yourself in the dirt, which is ostensibly why books such as “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” are popular. Bad things do happen to good people. And sometimes good people do bad, foolish or just ill-thought-out things — not because they’re innately bad, but because life is just a big complicated mess with multiple factors to arrange.
I much prefer this to that New Age axiom: “You create your own reality.” This implies that you’re ultimately responsible for anything bad that happens to you, because you’ve chosen it either in this life or before your birth. By this view, all rapes are legitimate and chosen by the victim. Bad things only happen to bad people. If you get cancer, it’s because you deserved it by not being sufficiently pure in thought, deed and food quality. Maybe you didn’t pray with enough sincerity, the friend in the Theodicy says.
Unfortunately, American culture is squarely in the New Age/Gospel of Prosperity/shiny happy friend camp. The long-term unemployed just aren’t trying hard enough! The welfare moms should just get jobs at McDonald’s, and never mind the fact that they’ll lose their health care, don’t have child care and McDonald’s isn’t hiring, since they’ve been swamped with applications by unemployed college grads! Can’t find a job? Be your own boss and become an entrepreneur!
(That last always gets to me. In a well-known statistic from the Small Business Administration: 80 percent of all small businesses fail within the first year. And speaking from reality: 1. It takes capital to start a business, which the unemployed don’t have. 2. What business is everyone supposed to start? I mean, seriously. You’re not going to pay your bills as a professional dogwalker in a small town. Writers and web designers are a dime a dozen. Yoga teachers are expected to work for free. Not everyone has talents well-suited to entrepreneurship — or the personality to boot. 3. Small business owners very rarely have any health coverage, unless their spouse does. But I digress.)
If you’re suffering — whether it’s short term or long term, whether it’s money or job-related, over the loss of a loved one or the failure of a relationship, a foreclosure, a car accident, even the death of a pet — you don’t need to hear the relentlessly cheery chirping of the shiny happy friend. Yes, it’s well-meant, and probably stems from the fact that we don’t know what to say when people suffer. So we resort to the cultural cliche and inch-deep, surface-level problem-solving.
But you know, heart-felt words — even stumbling and hesitant — are the balm. You can’t take away someone’s suffering, but you can acknowledge their feelings and circumstances; you can relate and forge connections. As the poet Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese”: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t think the root issue of despair is grand enough; a shit sandwich comes in many sizes, including finger food. Even a small shit sandwich can be too much on a certain Tuesday, although the following Tuesday, the would-be sufferer might just laugh it off. What matters is that, for this one moment in time, a living being is suffering.
One of the meanings of “suffer” is simply “to experience.” And that’s just it. When you suffer, you are experiencing something. Denying its reality or painting it otherwise doesn’t help.
This week, I had a moment of profound and unexpected gratitude. When I was suffering, a friend listened. She said she was sorry and meant it. When I got back to my desk later that afternoon, there was a gift bag with chocolate, a bottle of wine and a card with a cute blue elephant.
Tears rushed from my eyes — because of the unexpectedness of it, the heartfelt nature of it, because it was just such the right and perfect thing to do.
Thank you, D. I mean it.