Things I Did Not Understand
Chapter 7: Things I Did Not Understand (The most essential problem)
There are memories which are so painful as to induce physical discomfort at their very recall. The existence of such an event degrades and humiliates the consciousness which contains it. I have experienced moments in which my whole life is swallowed up by that feeling. Dishonor and abasement, in this state of mind, have been my most faithful companions, far outlasting any comrade or family member. The entirety of a man’s past is then filtered through the prism of misery and he becomes a wretch more pathetic and lowly than the filthiest swine.
Without a purpose, a man becomes the same as any broken tool. He drifts atop the oceans of indifference and can find no respite from the storms of guilt. It was inevitable that such thoughts would appear to me as I watched the preparations for the attack enter their final stage. The trenches had been dug, the munitions laid out and the battle plans drawn. And I watched it all from the comfort of my ivory tower.
What had happened to me? I pondered this question intensely during the morning prayer and Father Matthews’ brief sermon about hope and resilience during this time of danger. What sort of man had I become? The wooden pews and first golden rays shining through the stained glass windows faded away as I fell into internal contemplation. Images of myself going off to war flashed before my eyes. How strong I was back then! My eyes had the sharp gleam of purpose and my face held a casual expression of confidence.
Gone. It was all gone. There was no hope of returning to that state of normalcy. I experienced an uncomfortable sensation of corporeal claustrophobia in that moment of realization. With frightening clarity I understood what Lieutenant Durand had meant when he had spoken of being trapped within a body.
That is the most essential problem of human existence. Consciousness and its self evident infinite value are housed by the horrifyingly frail container of the mortal form. The soul is subject to the vicissitudes of random chance, and any unkind fluctuation in the conditions of its environment can damage or destroy that which is least repairable and most precious in all existence. And the universe seems to be a place not at all suited to the existence of that which is axiomatically valuable. Truly, nothing that exists is treated as if it is so except by its own agency.
It is an overwhelming piece of knowledge and something which is so horrifying that it can hardly be formulated properly. The most essential dialectic in the universe, at least since the emergence of consciousness, has been this one. It is not the search for the meaning of life which forms the primary problem of existence, for the search for meaning necessarily arises out of the consideration of that contradiction. There would be no need for a shining light to hold against the bleakness of reality if the conditions of all that is were not so hostile to humanity.
This line of thought was broken by the conclusion of prayer. Those who felt the compulsion could stay for further discussion. The rest of us were free to go. I found myself strangely tempted to stay. The conversation was to focus on the Book of Job. I knew little about it but if there was to be any part of the Bible which would tempt me to make an effort at study, I supposed that would be it.
What a strange story it was. A good man punished for his virtues, his family dying for the crime of guilt by association. And all to appease the whims of God and Satan. Against what seemed to be my own will, I remained seated as a large portion of the assembled worshippers left the room. That alien impulse which seemed to originate ex nihilo glued me to my seat and dashed any hopes of the exercise of conscious desire.
“Well, I see we’re down to the solid core now,” Father Matthews said, smiling at us. “We’re about to go toe to toe with the German army and you’re all here eager to listen to me blather on some more. What’s wrong with you?”
That earned a few scattered laughs. I was not among those laughing.
“I suppose it’s best to just get down to it, then, shall we?”
A few affirmative murmurs rose in response.
“We all know the story, but let’s run through it anyway. A righteous man is tested by God and Satan to see if his faith will hold in the face of tragedy. His family dies, he becomes seriously ill, in short, he loses everything.”
It was at about this point that I began regretting my decision to remain. Father Matthews’ description was hitting a little too close to home.
“And, surprise, the gambit works. Job loses faith in God’s goodness. He questions him.”
Well of course he questions him. I thought to myself. A just God wouldn’t do that.
“But, his friends tell him that he must have done wrong, that he must be experiencing punishment for some sin. Job responds with some suitably depressing descriptions of the pointlessness of human existence, and the argument seems to be at an impasse. They argue about God’s wisdom, and finally the Big Man himself arrives and sets them all straight. Job’s friends are wrong, and Job was wrong to question God. He admits that himself, saying, ‘...I repent in dust and ashes.’ And so he’s rewarded, and all of the things that were taken away from him are returned. Though, his family is still dead.”
Collective punishment, how very appropriate for the God of the Old Testament. I thought to myself, enjoying the private joke.
A small man in the front spoke up, “Well, Satan was right wasn’t he? I mean, Job did lose his faith. Maybe he was only a good man because of his money.”
Why did I stay to listen to this drivel? I asked myself. What kind of a question is that?
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Father Matthews nodded.
“God tells him in the end that he is all powerful, that Job has no right to question him. That seems like a reasonable answer to me. We can’t question God. What he does is good, I mean, it has to be.”
I could contain myself no longer.
“Oh, shut up, will you?” people turned to look at me. “You’re going on and on about God’s goodness and his power as if that somehow makes up for the suffering he inflicted on Job. Suffering is the way of the world. The lion eats the gazelle. People get cancer. Children are killed for no reason. There’s no logic or reason to it. It’s certainly not explainable or justifiable. It’s bad enough when God is looking the other way, but if God could actually be held to account for that suffering as the agent of it? There’s no defending that. We’re all at the whim of a capricious maniac, pieces on his board to be moved around and toyed with without regard for our feelings or tolerance of pain. That’s the message of the story. Agony and unbearable misery are the order of the day and we don’t even get the comfort of knowing that it’s for a higher cause. It might very well be just to settle a bet.”
A noticeable silence followed my outburst.
“Well,” Father Matthews spoke up after a while. “Does anyone have anything to say to that?”
The first man turned to fully face me, “Look, just because you’re miserable doesn’t mean that it’s God’s fault. You don’t get to pass the blame off to the universe. If things aren’t going well for you, that’s on you.”
“Really, it’s on me? What about the 3 year old who dies of the flu? What about the good men who are dying right now on those battlefields? Do you want to look them in the eye and explain how they’re the cause of their own suffering?” I was beginning to shout now.
“And what about the men who deserve to be on that battlefield? What about the ones who we’re better off without? Things sometimes happen for a reason.”
“And sometimes they don’t!” I began, before Father Matthews cut me off.
“I think that’s enough discussion for one day. We’ve heard some good points all around. Let me just close with this: remember Job’s final confession: ‘I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful to know.’ To me, that says it all.”
I spent the rest of the day considering what had happened in the sanctuary. It was better than thinking about the forthcoming battle. Father Matthews’ final statement, about Job’s confession, made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Truly, it shouldn’t matter whether I understood or not, but a fiber of my soul resonated with the desire for congruity. This piece of errant information disrupted the harmony of my psyche and arrested any attempts at being pushed to the side or ignored. It called to me in a language I did not speak and signaled to me through a medium I did not know.
Why couldn’t I get this problem out of my mind? What about it had ensared my being? I supposed that to some degree the search for a complete and undisrupted account of God’s justice troubled every living thing, and I was simply more in tune with that desire than others.
The essential problem to consider was fairly straightforward: if God could commit acts which are self-evidently immoral, how then is it any solace for the human mind to simply ignore them? Does evil not thrive in the shadows, the philosophical kind most especially? The human vulnerability to divine arbitrariness did not seem to be a problem easily ignored.
My line of reasoning did not progress any further than this, and therefore I gave up the effort, resolving to discuss the matter with Father Matthews at a time when the inferno of warfare was not standing, spectre-like, before us.
After a time, the walls of my room began to feel more oppressive than comforting and I abandoned their pseudo-comfort in favor of the blind hope of companionship. A few minutes of wandering the halls yielded nothing of the kind, however. I began to experience a queer detachment from my surroundings. The faces and bodies which streamed past blended into one another, forming a grey, lifeless tapestry. Dreamlike, their movements were somehow abstract and I considered them with a cold, calculating eye. Conversations lost their distinctive edges and took on the character of white noise.
I was a ghost in these halls and the geometry of my movement somehow took me parallel to the other occupants. Wrapped up in this self-pitying distance from the mortal realm, the soldier standing directly on the other side of the wall past which I was turning didn’t seem to register in my vision until we collided and ended up in a heap on the floor.
“For God’s sake,” he said, pulling himself up without offering me assistance in doing the same.
“Sorry,” I offered, sheepishly.
It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed what it was that I had disrupted. The soldier was stooped over a small, intricate charcoal drawing. It was incredible how much detail he had managed to pack into his work with such an inefficient tool.
“What is that?” I asked, studying it.
Now it was the other man’s turn to become uncomfortable. “Oh, it’s nothing really...”
“It’s amazing,” I cut him off. “Where did you learn how to do that?”
He smiled, “My sister taught me. Before she died.”“I’m sorry,” I offered, knowing it was both the expected response and completely pointless.
“Thanks,” the soldier reciprocated the gesture.
“What’s it a picture of?” The drawing wasn’t easy to get a handle on. I couldn’t make out a recognizable image.
“It’s something she used to like to draw. Just a series of shapes, really. See? There’s a circle, a square, a triangle. I don’t know why she liked it so much,” he shrugged.
I nodded. People were passing us, but as if I had sucked this poor man into the spirit realm along with me they all ignored us. Not so much as a glance was thrown in our direction.
“Why are you drawing it here? It’s just going to get destroyed by the morning,” I asked, noticing the obvious after an embarrassing delay.
The soldier leaned against the wall and absentmindedly began twirling a knife which had appeared from the depths of his pocket.
“I know, that always happens.”
He tapped the knife against his leg. “Yeah, I do this everywhere. All across the trenches and the tents in the camp and wherever I can find an open space and a free minute.”
“But, why, if you don’t mind me asking? It’s just going to get washed away. What’s the point?”
He laughed and spread his hands, “I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe I’m crazy. It feels like the right way to remember her, you know? It just feels right.”
I was sympathetic to that position, but I disagreed. It wasn’t crazy at all. It was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things I had ever heard in my entire life. So much so that I was forced to excuse myself as a tear welled up in my eye.
Even now, writing this record, it is impossible not to become emotional in recalling that man’s story and his futile tribute. Etching and re-etching his soul into the Earth, knowing that its inevitable erasure was just around the corner. It was not until much later that the full impact of his gesture would be absorbed by my consciousness. But in the moment, I understood that I had witnessed something profound - something unique and unutterably tragic. Within those few centimeters of floorspace stood an obelisk erected as a symbol of the human heart and its unshakeable resilience.
It has been a strange irony of human advancement that often our most significant achievements have been brought about by chance through the conduit of an unknowing participant. The first woman to drop a seed next to the riverbed and notice the resulting plant discovered agriculture. The first man to bring fire out of kindling and tame it became our Prometheus. And perhaps that soldier did the same for his generation.
And I do not even know his name.
I decided not to make further attempts at conversation with the soldiers. While not the embarrassing failure I had been expecting, I was apparently much too fragile for normal human interaction. My first instinct was to seek out Father Matthews, to continue our conversation from earlier, but he was predictably busy. A line had formed in front of his office, and he was stuck performing confession for almost the entirety of the garrison of the monastery. These men knew that this may well be their last chance, and for those that believed it could make the difference between heaven and hell.
I escaped the hall and sat in the blissfully quiet garden. My room and senseless attempts at sleep beckoned, but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. The scouts had reported that this was most likely our last night of peace before the inevitable battle began. Who knew what sort of fate the next 24 hours could hold? A man’s fortunes could be reversed within a much shorter interval than that.
A disturbing mood of self-reflection overtook me, as it sometimes did, in which I felt irrationally compelled to find the mistake in my past which had diverted me from the proper path. Where had I deviated from my necessary direction? I needn’t have bothered with the attempt to unravel my past, to try and find the single point of fault. Much like the ancient philosophers had believed about turtles my world rested on mistakes all the way down.
It had been a busy day intellectually speaking, but my body was cramped from the lack of physical exercise. It’s strange how when either the mind or body is neglected it is often the other which speaks up for it and demands the requisite attention. We are backwards creatures in more ways than one.
None of what I had heard or seen that day really made sense to me, but I couldn’t help but resume the attempt to understand it nonetheless. The unnamed soldier’s drawing was burned into my mind’s eye. Despite its amature design and primitive composition, I was intensely moved by it. Often this is the case with deep things: first they engender emotion, later reflection, and, finally, if we’re lucky, new understanding. Even then I had already learned that the emotional instinct to consider something as important and relevant should be trusted. But, I was not destined to break through beyond the first stage that night.
I sighed, and turned to begin to make my way back to my room. As I did so, a thunderous explosion tore through the night, shattering the ephemeral peace. The familiar whistle, bang and crack of enemy fire erupted all at once.
Stumbling, I threw myself through the monastery doors and sprinted towards the safety of my room. Once there, with the door firmly closed, I let myself go, shaking and weeping openly. I cursed the scouts for their inaccuracy - unfairly, I knew.
The battle had begun.