When Tragedies Are Too Big to Absorb, How Do We Find and Give Comfort?

I wonder if any of us is really capable of handling the scope of sorrow that technology now exposes us to.
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On Friday, as the world was rightly absorbed with the epic tragedy in Japan, I was reporting on a local tragedy for Patch.com. A young man, Matthew C. Blum, 32, of Forked River, New Jersey, had collapsed and died after leaving a recreational hockey game because he didn't feel well.

Blum was married just four months ago and his wife learned two weeks ago that she is expecting their first baby. A season of celebration was inexplicably shattered for this family.

As I sat next to Blum's young, pregnant widow in the living room of her in-laws' house absorbing one family's grief, I was incapable of absorbing anything more epic than that.

I felt this way after the Haiti earthquake last year, only the reason was more personal. Still mourning the death of my son in 2008, I was incapable of taking in any more sorrow. My personal grief has, to some degree, emotionally disconnected me from global tragedies.

I wonder though if any of us is really capable of handling the scope of sorrow that technology now exposes us to. Famine, earthquake, tsunami, terrorism, genocide: it's enough to tempt one to believe end times prophets have a point.

I don't think we are capable of handling the instability of the world, and so we send condolences and prayers out on Facebook and Twitter and send money with a text to the Red Cross or some other organization and divest ourselves of other people's pain.

We have to function after all. I had a funeral to attend Saturday morning for a man in his 50s, and a blog post to write for another outlet about an Indian Supreme Court ruling that will allow "passive euthanasia" for the first time. My weekend was already consumed with too much death.

When the World Trade Center fell on a crisp blue September morning 10 years ago, it was as if the whole world had imploded, especially for those of us who lived nearby. Psalm 46 seemed like it was written for a tragedy like that and the ones that managed to penetrate my grief resistant psyche this weekend. I'll quote Eugene Peterson in The Message, because he distinctly makes it sound like it's not God's fault, whereas more literal translations make it sound like it is and we can't handle that. Peterson writes:

God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him.
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
courageous in seastorm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
the tremors that shift mountains.
Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

River fountains splash joy, cooling God's city,
this sacred haunt of the Most High.
God lives here, the streets are safe,
God at your service from crack of dawn.
Godless nations rant and rave, kings and kingdoms threaten,
but Earth does anything he says.

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

Attention, all! See the marvels of God!
He plants flowers and trees all over the earth,
Bans war from pole to pole,
breaks all the weapons across his knee.
"Step out of the traffic! Take a long,
loving look at me, your High God,
above politics, above everything."

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

The world is not only a material place, but in the face of extreme physical vulnerability (or a simple headache), one comprehends anew the undeniable reality that mind, body, and spirit are inseparable. We feel in our bodies the fear of nuclear disaster, even if we think we are safe from earthquake and tsunami. We long for the physical presence of the loved ones we've lost, even if their impact on our lives is enduring. We wrestle intellectually with a God who allows his creation to swallow entire communities or fell a young man in his prime.

If we have any sense at all, we bow in humility before our Creator, recognizing that although we cannot comprehend his ways, a world that is not solely material is one in which we can find comfort in God. The psalmist's description of river fountains splashing with joy in the city of God reminds us of the metaphysical world that can seem especially veiled when the physical one betrays us. We need such reminders if we ever hope to revel in the flowers and trees that bloom out of tragedies.

Matthew Blum's wife has a baby growing in her belly, a baby who will bring comfort and joy to their family even as he or she reminds them of the one they've lost. My prayer for them and for the people of Japan and for myself is that our pain reminds us of our shared humanity and spurs us on to greater love for those whose lives we have the capacity to touch.

Don't get me wrong, I'll support the work of relief organizations that put feet on the ground in global tragedies and keep working to stay connected to people suffering in ways I am incapable of absorbing. My calling, however, is to make a difference in the lives God has put in my path. The ones whose hands I can actually hold.

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