In the northwest coastal forest where I live, it is again the season of rebirth. Out of a blanket of leaf mold sprout oxalis and salmonberry shoots and dozens of other leafy species who call this woods home. Some residents stay only for days, like the tri-fold trillium, and others have lingered for a hundred or more years, like the hulking red cedar just beyond my kitchen window—shedding needles each year only to continue producing more. And someday, even the old cedars will die, perhaps rotting where they fall, hosting a hundred smaller species who will feed off the humus their rotting flesh will become—ferns and mushrooms and spruce seedlings that will themselves become tall trees.
Can you imagine a world in which nothing died? A world where things grow indefinitely and never enter the cycle of death and rot, or the struggle of rebirth? We cannot even imagine this because it is so foreign to the balanced reality we know, so far from the order that seems to be at the heart of our very existence and the essence of the evolving universe. Can you imagine never experiencing springtime because there was no winter? The thought of endless growth, of life’s ledger no longer factoring in death, strikes me as negative, not positive.
In the lives of many I’ve known, the same cyclical pattern of death and struggle and rebirth has been undeniable, with losses and failures birthing beautiful offspring. I think of an elderly friend whose alcoholism forced him into a treatment program that resurrected him. When he was first told he must go, and before actually going, he felt such scalding shame and resistance that he was unsure he wanted to live. But the path that led out from that place, one of brilliant self-awareness and peace, honesty and clarity, and of giving himself to others via recovery groups he became involved in in his last decades, brought him face to face with love. I think of the friend whose repeated failures in relationships strengthened her—intimate relationships where she gave herself away so fully out of an earnest desire to connect that she was carelessly exploited. Yet with each experience, and the healing quest spilling out from it, her inner abused child grew stronger and healed, becoming a formidable advocate for the kids with whom she works. I think of dozens of other such stories.
It is the pattern of the human body. How the muscles literally need strain and tearing to build up strength upon strength, a process leading to soreness and pain, but pain necessary for functioning. I see the pattern in how our body’s cells are constantly dying off and being replaced with new cells. In fact, cells that do not die and give way to regeneration are called “malignant,” because they don’t submit to the balancing act essential to nature and the universe. Inventions like plastics that do not break down and waste away as the natural order intends, pollute our world, breaking down only into micro-forms more deadly as they end up in water and in our bodies, poisoning us indefinitely.
In my personal life too, the cyclical pattern of death and struggle and rebirth has been undeniable. Losses and failures—every rotten-stinking, ugly, mucous-y experience of decay and death—has become humus, fertile ground to host a brilliant array of insights and attributes I wouldn’t trade for any offer of ease the metaphorical devil might deal. Lest you think I’m romanticizing, let me tell you. I speak of abusive relationships, blind-siding affairs, depression and repeated health problems, and trauma passed on from ancestors suffering poverty, alcoholism, and the blindness of their own privilege. These experiences were accompanied at times by shattering pain that caused me, too, to question living, by cutting words I remember well, and by actions—some of my own, some of others—so repugnant and still so sticky with regret that I flinch to think of them.
Yet I cannot imagine being who I am without these experiences. Every gift of development or transformation came by having to struggle and rebuild from emotional- and life-wreckage. Things died in me; but so much was reborn. Some scars remain, including chronic illness. There are mistakes (mine and others) I might have done well without. But in hindsight, who knows? Perhaps they served me more than they harmed. Would I prefer to have been protected from struggle and decay? I cannot imagine. Most people I’ve met who were buffered from pain and travail lack basic elements of goodness as I would define them.
The pattern I describe here is not only seen in nature, the body, and in individual lives. In the course of history, we see it again and again. How times of progress and opening invite a backlash: the ugly rearing head of exclusion and greed. Times of increasing pluralism, cooperation, and acceptance are followed by periods of repression and backwardness. Each cycle of death giving way to a deeper desire for and appreciation of our Common Good. History plods along in the same way humans do: three steps forward and two steps back.
In the Christian story and core Christian metaphors, the pattern of death necessarily preceding and giving way to new birth is so central it is almost “hidden in plain sight.” Triumphalist interpretations of the faith choose to ignore the obvious because we’d like to think Jesus “took care of” pain and death and suffering once and for all so we don’t have to experience it. This has led to moralistic religion: Christianity as a formula to avoid life’s messiness and keep things pretty and orderly. But Jesus was showing us the way—the inevitable path of descent and ascent.
Ultimately, what this topic has me pondering is the nature of the force we call “God,” or Creator. Does it not seem that the evolving creation we see manifesting before our eyes includes struggle and death as necessary precursors to rebirth? Are not decline, decay, and death thus integral to the nature of reality? Is not suffering somehow part of the whole beautiful, constructive package? This raises profound questions about our conceptions of the Divine. This is something I am wrestling with, playing with, pondering.
How could we call “good” a creation that was all growth, ascent, and triumph when we know that descent, fallowness, even death, are essential to the good? How could we call “good” a God who protected us from the very struggles and pains that shape, strengthen, and refine us, that teach us what it means to reflect the Good. How could we desire that kind of God, or think the God we call “good” could be this God?
When I hear people say they reject belief in God because of suffering, the idea simply does not resonate with me. Why would we even want a life that had no suffering? Who would want a natural order that was all growth and no death—the domination of too-much-ness? If a natural order involving parasites and viruses and natural disasters and natural selection of some species over others seems like pure cruelty, imagine a natural order that did not have mechanisms of decline and disruption? Imagine all growth and bounty all the time?
I do realize that there are loads of pain too heavy to bear, where the advantages of struggle edge over into ruthless oppression. Again, we can take the body as example. Some strain is absolutely essential and advantageous for our body’s stamina and health. This includes certain deprivations (for example, fasting, which has remarkable benefits). Yet certain levels of strain will absolutely break the body and cause irreparable damage. It seems that a balance of adversity/struggle and flourishing are essential to the nature of the universe. Balance being the key word. And there are times when a tipping over into too much adversity harms irreparably.
But both in the human and non-human realms, this tipping over into too much most often has—in the course of known history—been wrought at the hands of humans. Yes, nature involves killing for food and inevitable death. These aspects of the natural world strike the balance needed for the flourishing and slow evolving of species. But what humans have done in taking too much, killing too much, and dominating rather than cooperating with balance, has put us at risk of extinction and threatened life as we know it on this planet. It has led to animal and plant species, ecosystems, and fellow humans being harmed irreparably.
I absolutely agree that a God who would carefully select some people to starve while others overeat would be no God I wish to know. But it is we humans who make this choice. As we do with regard to wars, genocides, run-of-the-mill day-in-day-out inequality. Humanity has framed God for these our own failings for far too long. While the evolving order of creation does seem to lead to bounty in some places alongside famine in others, does this not mirror the cycles of struggle, death, and rebirth that mark the essential nature of reality—and that is ultimately gift? Of course, the powerful and strong elbow their way into the more abundant lands—feast or famine be damned, and call it “manifest destiny.”
This, my fellow humans, is on us.