Years ago I rode to work on a commuter train, which made me a silent party to all sorts of conversations among people who unaccountably assumed they had the car to themselves. This was long before cell phones intruded on everyone's peace of mind, but the effect was much the same, except that I was privy to both ends of unwanted conversations. Often, however, these conversations were really extended monologues, with the other party supplying just enough of a response to assure the speaker that someone was listening. I remember one rather bedraggled-looking character who boarded the train each morning with a fresh tale of woe for everyone within earshot. His boss, his co-workers, his family and his neighbors were all party to a vast conspiracy to make his life miserable, and evidently they were succeeding. Yet far from being angry or bitter, he seemed to take grim satisfaction in each small reversal of fortune, since it only confirmed his hard-luck view of himself. "The story of my life," he would sigh at every turn. Had he won the lottery, there is no doubt he would fret about being set upon by the IRS and greedy relatives. Even if fortune smiled, bad luck was sure to follow.
The new century has brought its share of national calamities, each of which has been followed by a period of collective soul-searching. Blue-ribbon commissions are appointed to identify causes and to affix blame. We feel compelled to attach a storyline to each event that fits the larger narrative structure of our lives. Whether it is a man-made or natural disaster, the only thing more terrifying than the cataclysm itself is the thought there may be no explanation for it. This is never truer than with so-called acts of God, which challenge our most fundamental notions about a universe governed by a benevolent Creator.
The Old Testament Book of Job remains the definitive work on this subject, although one would be hard-pressed to draw much consolation from it. Job is a hard-luck case without peer. His tribulations are chronicled in a long narrative poem sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue that, if anything, are even more disquieting than the disasters that befall him. In short order, Job is stripped of his family and possessions and left sitting in an ash heap covered with sores. As if he weren't miserable enough already, his friends now show up to help him identify causes and affix blame. They have no doubt that Job must have sinned mightily to deserve such punishment, since God would never afflict the innocent. Job protests throughout that he is a righteous man -- but then, we already know that because God has conceded as much in a prologue in which he and Satan plot Job's downfall.
One can read into the Job story the ultimate futility of trying to impose our own narrative structure on acts of God. This is not to suggest that blue-ribbon commissions have no role to play in identifying causes and affixing blame. But if we are seeking reassurance that there is some hidden justice in the misfortunes that befall the human race, we won't find it in Job's tale of woe. When God at last speaks out of the whirlwind, he repudiates every explanation served up by Job's friends and provides none of his own. However, Job's doggedness in seeking justification for himself does not go entirely unrequited. He has at last seen the Lord face-to-face, which means he has seen through himself for the first time and now grasps his essential nothingness. Life will go on, but it is as if the story of his life no longer has a protagonist. "Therefore," Job says, "I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust."
Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job