What It Means When Misery Is Meaningless

Paul Prather is a country preacher in a small town in Kentucky called Mount Sterling. […]

Ethan Richardson / 9.10.12

Paul Prather is a country preacher in a small town in Kentucky called Mount Sterling. He also writes a weekly Faith & Values column for the Lexington Herald-Leader–usually ripe with fatherly insights, slice-of-life metaphors–and, though, he’s a Christian preacher, his columns are generally wide enough in scope not to be specific.

This week’s column–and for that matter, the last three weeks’ columns–have been all about Prather’s father, a widely successful, godly sort of man who is now noticeably deteriorating with a recent heart attack, growing dementia, and a disease known as Sundowners. Despite Prather’s routine role as the sage, pastoral answerer, with the ever-tender, tight pulse on the cosmos, Prather these weeks has thrown his arms up in complete resignation at knowing what’s going on at all and, in doing so, has come through with some of the sagest words yet.

He speaks to our desire as humans to name where our sufferings are pointed. A lot of times in Christian circles you will hear believers speaking about “what God is doing in their lives.” If life’s sufferings are pointed in any degree to any reasonable target, we can control the tailspin and regain altitude. If we just know what God may be trying to say to us, what lesson He may be trying to teach us, if we just have clarity on why, well, we can endure it. Prather, though, is adamant that this is rarely what happens in realtime, and that God has a propensity for leaving us in the cloud rather than sparing the weal and woe. This is not to negate the reality of God’s redemption, or the hope that comes in faith, but to say that these places of suffering often leave us feeling faith as impotent. Here acceptance and passive waiting, rather than vainly figuring and refiguring, is the only means for peace. I am reminded of Capon’s famous line that, “Death is the only part of the resurrection we can now know. The rest is faith.”

Mentally, he’s pitiful. He alternately sobs, then grows defensive, then screams as if he’s being tortured with cattle prods, then becomes furious and insulting. When he’s more-or-less calm, he can’t remember anything. He asks the same questions endlessly: Where am I? How did I get here? Who are these people?

One day as I stood by his bed, he snapped at an aide who was trying to perform some medical task. The aide said, “Mr. Prather, I’m only trying to help you.”

“There is no Mr. Prather,” my father said. “I’m already dead. Don’t you understand that? Paul Prather is dead.”

That’s perhaps the most lucid thing he’s said in weeks.

My sister, Cathi, and I have discussed this: the father we knew is, for all intents and purposes, gone. He’s been slowly leaving for quite a while, but now he’s really gone. The shell lives on, however, keeps breathing and sleeping and fussing and urinating and eating and pleading. This could continue indefinitely.

I know my dad well enough to know he wouldn’t want to be here in this condition. He’d been saying for years, since his health began failing, long before this latest turn of events, that he wanted nothing more than to go on to heaven.

But he can’t go, so here he is. Here we are. Here the medical staff is.

Cathi wrote a long post on her Facebook page about the situation. It expressed what our family is feeling. In part it said:

“My father spent his entire life serving God, helping others, and being a pretty important and well-respected man. He was a preacher, school teacher, guidance counselor, college dean of students, college vice president, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc. He was healed of cancer all over his body with a miracle from God and never had another day of cancer. He was on the radio, he was on television, he and my mother wrote a book. You should see him now …

“At times like this I sometimes begin to wonder why life is the way it is. What is the real purpose in living a long unhealthy life where you are unhappy and confused? What is the point in living in a nursing home with very few visitors and not recognizing them when your family does visit? … ”

I imagine a lot of other people ask the same questions. The rehabilitation center and connected nursing home where Dad is staying are filled with patients as bad off as he is. All of them previously had their own lives, jobs, dreams—their own variations of everything Dad had. They have families, too.

It’s disheartening. We humans always want there to be a reason for pain. We want suffering to make sense. We want to be refined and redeemed by it. But what if, in a case such as this, the point is that there is no point?

Even if Dad pulls through this crisis, even if he regains a small measure of sanity and semi-independence, it’s not as if, at 81, widowed, blind and and senile, he has a lot to look forward to.

In 2010, my wife’s mother passed after a long, losing battle with Alzheimer’s. I asked Liz the other day what she took away from her mom’s illness. “If there was a lesson to be learned from all that, I’m still waiting to learn it,” she said. “I can’t tell that it meant anything. It happened. It was—and that’s it.”

Buddhists teach that life is suffering. Much of our unhappiness, they say, arises from trying to avoid, alleviate or rationalize our pain. Instead, we’d do better to accept pain for what it is—a reality of life—and embrace it, or at least accept it.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I find great wisdom in that.

God may have some cosmic purpose in the ongoing trials of an old man who’s already seen his better days, who’s miserable and eager to go on to his rewards. But to us mere mortals, our knowledge being limited, those trials seem pointless and almost cruel. I find that for me one way to cope with what I’m witnessing is to surrender to it, to just let it be what it is, to not try to understand.