About a week-and-a-half ago, my body decided to have an a-cute eczema flare-up. Having only previously ever experienced mild eczema, I could tell you about how this was far from a delight. I could tell you about how I have changed my routines to accommodate it, abandoning showers and walks, as if eczema were a demanding aunt who’d blown into town on a surprise visit. In fact, I could tell you A LOT of things—like, seriously, anytime you want to talk about it, I am MORE than down, but at the same time, my over-identification with eczema has me seriously annoyed with myself (case in point: I considered buying eczema merch (this exists) for a hot minute, and I’m still not sure I won’t be the proud owner of an “I hate eczema” mug a week from now). Plus, as my therapist has pointed out, thinking about non-eczema things might be more helpful for getting myself out of fight-or-flight mode than thinking about eczema things.

Besides the inflammation itself, it’s the timing of this inflammation that has me truly perplexed. I’m compelled to talk to God the way I talk to my Roomba, like, “Yo, this is really not a good time,” continuing, “you know about CORONAVIRUS, right? You know I’m supposed to be quarantining, not going to the dermatologist on a weekly basis? You know I live in Germany and my German dermatology vocabulary is kind of rusty and managing all of this in German is kind of stressful, right? RIGHT?” (I’m not convinced I’m not going to consequentially spontaneously burst into flames.)

I see myself as a logical and analytical person who likes to find reasons for things and understand things. For this reason, it is pretty easy for me to rationalize any and all afflictions from God’s point of view: the spread of coronavirus (He’s trying to bring us all together!); acute eczema (He’s distracting me from coronavirus!); and even my own dad’s traumatizing and similarly poorly timed death (This one definitely makes sense!). I should probably remember that correlation does not imply causality, and that blessings are not the same things as explanations.

I remind myself of Job, who in the midst of his suffering, tries to take God to court. He, too, speaks to God as if God is a Roomba: “Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands, and favor the schemes of the wicked? Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see?” This goes on for a while.

Let me be honest with you, or at least try to be honest. I turned to the book of Job hoping for some nice, helpful answers to my FAQ, which, in the vein of K’naan’s “Is Anybody Out There?”, is something like: What is God up to? Is He, like, “doing things”?

At first, I tried to be responsible, carefully reading Job’s first, second, and third speeches, before realizing that all of his annoying-as-eczema friends have multiple speeches as well, and skipping to the part where God explains it all, the way a graduate student might read a journal article: exec. sum., intro., find the thesis, get to the conclusion, definitely skip the charts and tables.

Spoiler alert: God does not explain it all. Instead, God says: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2) and discusses His creation at great length, before saying about the Leviathan, of all things, “I will not keep silence concerning its limbs, or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame” (41:12).

And for reasons I still don’t understand, by the end of the story, Job concedes: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted … Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:2-3).

Reaching this end, I wonder: Am I missing something? It’s as if Job got something out of God’s speeches that I definitely did not. God confirms that Job got something out of them when God says of Job’s friends, “…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (42:7).

Frankly unwilling to enter into contemplative prayer, I am having a really hard time with all of this. Biblical footnotes were somewhat helpful. Re: chapter 42:3, they offer: “Job means that he now realizes that cosmic justice is a marvel beyond human comprehension, like the structure of the universe.” Likewise, this Psychology Today article offered some useful interpretation: “Trauma happens and we have to accept it. Explanations may make us feel better, but they mislead. Ultimately, Job, like all of us, must endure suffering not knowing why…or if the question even counts.” But despite being logical interpretations of this chaotic book, the interpretations themselves elude both logic and healing.

I’ve been thinking, in my frenetic and logical searching, about how maybe we don’t comprehend things until we feel them, or unless we feel them. I joked earlier about rationalizing my dad’s death, but truly that experience softened my heart towards God in a way I only remember feeling at some of my loneliest moments in childhood, dealing with an isolating OCD but, at least in one moment, feeling strongly that God was with me. I can’t tell you why, but I guess the best conversion stories lack a clear thesis.

In my own suffering, the only place I’ve ever found comfort is at the very bottom of it. That is not to say that I relish it or gloat in it. I think it’s more that I have somehow accepted it. I don’t know how I’ve accepted it, except for that it seems that God has somehow made me able to. I imagine sitting at the bottom of it like sitting at the bottom of a coffee cup, neutrally regarding its grainy coffee grounds, holding my knees to my chest, or curled up in the deepest part of a cave, having given up hope for any prophetic writing to appear on its walls. It’s not somewhere I want to be forever—it’s a coffee cup; it’s a cave—but it’s okay for a little while.

Perhaps, then, the most inconceivable suffering is the suffering of other people. Probably I am not supposed to understand Job. Maybe Job doesn’t even understand Job. But he intuits something, or feels something, or knows something in a different way than we typically know, that seems to assuage him. But that is not to say that I think people always feel comforted by God in their own suffering. I guess it’s just saying that the only place we might feel God’s balm for suffering is at the bottom of our own.

*

A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Mudbound. Mudbound tells the story of two sharecropping families, one white and one black, living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi; it contains some of most horrific brutality I have ever seen on screen. After watching the film’s most brutal scene, I paused it and held my head in my hands; I rocked back and forth; I willed myself to take some breaths, but not too many, as if through a large straw, like breathing too much might tempt God.

I tell you this not so you are impressed with how moved I was, but to try to understand my own experience of traumatization. In part, I suppose that the brutality reminded me of my own dad’s death. My dad is not a black man; he was not brutalized in the Jim Crow South. But he did die in Mississippi, and his body and mind were brutalized. Bigger than this, though, is the way in which his death, and the violence in the film, felt not only brutal but also avoidable, and thus meaningless. Meditating on the brutal element of Mudbound, Richard Brody writes:

It gives rise to fantasies—of a superhero movie, in which a costumed vigilante would fly in and lay low the white-hooded villains; of a political drama, in which a band of black resistance fighters would storm the barn and overwhelm the lynch mob; of a legal one, in which the police would thwart the crime, arrest the criminals, and rescue the victim.

I confess that I, too, have fantasies, although I play them out only in dreams. In these dreams, my dad is not-yet-dead; by this, I mean, that he is alive, but I am awash with doom in the possibility and even likelihood of his impending death, and it is my job to save him. In another iteration of the dream, he has died, but come back to life, and it is my job to save him, the common element being that it is my job to save him. Awake, asleep, at home, abroad, I don’t believe that it is not my job to save him.

I think a hidden place within me knows that it is not my job to save him, even though my loudest and most agent selves do not know this.

I was thinking the other day about how, even in God’s mystery, sometimes God can be kind of obvious. On the tail of this thought, I asked myself what the most right-under-my-nose answer to my nightmare would be; I thought of a picture I’ve had on my nightstand for as long as I can remember. In it, my dad holds a newborn-me and gazes at me in a way I can only describe as love-overflowing. This picture tells me a story, or by interpreting the picture, I can tell you a story: the story is about how the most perfect thing I ever did for my dad was to exist; the “reason” my dad loved me was because I was alive.

I can tell you all of this. I can tell you I’m still not sure what I think about it. Sometimes it makes me want to cry; other times, I think it’s kind of short-circuited and pat.

But I cannot tell you why black people have been brutalized in America. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

*

In my eczema-ness, I’ve done a fair amount of googling about eczema. And despite my therapist’s remark that non-eczema thinking might be more of a balm than eczema thinking, I think some of the best places on the internet might be places that give space for people with eczema to talk about eczema. The epitome of this for me might be a 2011 truly perspective-giving essay from Jen A. Miller, a sufferer of chronic and extremely severe eczema. She explains that

…anytime [her] body comes into contact with something it doesn’t like — an item of clothing, a change in weather, stress — [her] brain relays it to [her] skin by tattooing [her] body with red, burning scales … [ she hasn’t] been completely itch- and mark-free in over a year.

She concludes the piece, neither hopeful nor helpful:

The patches on my hands are small now, the few flakes on my eyelids almost clear. The insides of my elbows are stark white, new skin I hope will stay clear. I’m not hiding in my bedroom, and haven’t had to use the steroid cream in months. I recently ran my first marathon. But there’s that tickle at the back of my throat, reminding me that it’ll be back some day. And I wait.

Early on in his book, Job says, “…I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (7:11). He gives not one but ten speeches. Am I superficial to hope that the greatest balm that both writers might have is in their writing? I worry that I sound like a pastor who prescribes prayer for mental illness.

And truly, the greatest balm is an actual balm. But in the absence of that, I guess writing helps. I imagine it like a lamp cord that winds and curls and eventually leads back to a light-giving source. Maybe suffering doesn’t have meaning, but at least we can create meaning out of it.

Still, this is meaning in the human sense, not in God’s. As God says to Job, “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox…” (40:15). Even my footnote is confused about what Behemoth is, describing it as

an ambiguous figure. It is dangerous, and yet to try capturing it is so absurd that it is beyond being a danger. It is powerful but actually does little except sleep, eat, and procreate … it is a beast without qualities. Yet it is God’s showpiece (v. 19a). Is it because it so well represents God’s freedom to refuse rules and rationality and principles of utility?

The footnote continues, explaining that Behemoth is “literally the plural of the common Heb term for ‘animal,’” although “[s]cholarly opinion is divided as to whether it is a primeval monster … or is to be identified with the hippopotamus.”

This is confusing. I don’t get it, except to guess that maybe God is saying something like: “Hey, the world is a big place. I made a lot of things. I made a lot of krazy with a ‘k’ things that are out of your control and beyond your ability to understand.”

In other words, maybe we don’t have to make meaning out of suffering. Maybe suffering, or some suffering, is too big to be meaningful. I don’t have to tell you a story about how I thought about a picture on my nightstand and was reminded of both my parental and heavenly Father’s love because God is already with me, even in my nightmares.

Still, unlike Job, I do not concede. But I am tired, and I pray that one day I will concede, or at least want to want to.


Featured image: eczema mug designed and sold by atomguy.